Leadership & Governance

Racial Disparities in Higher Education: an Overview

November 10, 2015

Racism on American campuses is a matter of national concern again this week following protests at the University of Missouri at Columbia that led on Monday to the resignations of both the campus’s chancellor and the system’s president.

Protesters unhappy with the administration’s response to several incidents in which African-American students were the targets of racial slurs formed a group called Concerned Student 1950, a reference to the year the university admitted its first black student.

The protests, which included a graduate student on a hunger strike and gained traction after the university’s football team joined in, called for the resignation of the system’s president, Timothy M. Wolfe, who announced on Monday that he was stepping down. Several hours later, the chancellor of the Columbia campus, R. Bowen Loftin, resigned as well.

While the situation in Missouri is dramatic, and the protests there particularly successful, racial tensions have flared up on several campuses in the past year.

Those events draw attention to continuing racial disparities in higher education, where African-Americans make up a small portion of professors, presidents, and selective-college enrollments. Let’s take a look at some relevant data:

Disparities in Where Students Enroll

College enrollment is racially polarized. White students are overrepresented in selective colleges — which have more resources to educate and support them — while African-American students are overrepresented in less-selective institutions. The table below comes from a 2013 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which also found that this polarization has grown more pronounced since the mid-1990s.

Disparities Between Players and Coaches

In at least one corner of higher education African-American students are not underrepresented: the rosters of competitive football teams. A majority of football players in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of competition, are African-American.

But leaders of the subdivision’s colleges and conferences are "overwhelmingly white and male," according to a report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, at the University of Central Florida. For instance, 87 percent of head football coaches of the subdivision’s teams are white.

Disparities Among Faculty Members

The ranks of full-time faculty members remain heavily white, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Seventy-eight percent of full-time faculty members — and 84 percent of full professors — were white in 2013.

Disparities Among Presidents

Whites are even more overrepresented among college leaders, according to data from the American Council on Education. Eighty-seven percent of presidents, and 88 percent of those recently hired, are white.

Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.