6 Key Findings From the ACE Report on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Ed

By Zenia Henderson, Director of Member & Partner Engagement

Just over a week ago, the American Council on Education (ACE) released the much-anticipated report “Race & Ethnicity in Higher Education.” The organization hosted a release convening to highlight the report’s key findings. The convening also included two panel sessions, and you can view a recording of the event here.

Read on for a summary of the findings and the critical discussion points made by the panelists.

6 Key Findings

  1. To no one’s surprise, the U.S. population has become more educated and more racially and ethnically diverse over the last 20 years. The report found that 45 percent of the total population ages 25 and older had obtained at least an associate degree – that’s a 13 percentage-point increase since 1997. This is attributed primarily to the growing Hispanic population that is seeking higher education more now than it was 20 years ago.

  2. African-Americans continue to fare poorly in the higher education system with the lowest persistence rates, the highest undergraduate dropout rates, and the highest borrowing rates. Additionally, despite the steadily rising attainment, Hispanic men and women, American Indian and Alaskan Native men had the lowest levels of education attainment, with most holding only a high school credential or less. Along with African-Americans, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander populations also each exhibit low college enrollment rates among students of traditional college-going age.

  3. In the analysis of Department of Education data, the researchers were “unable to definitively illuminate some information” about American Indian, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders, due to insufficient sample size related to high school completion, graduate enrollment, and affordability/financing. Some data that was evident was enrollment data from 2016 indicating that 20 percent or less of [these] indigenous populations enrolled in college, compared to 41 percent of people from across all racial/ethnic groups ages 18-24. Students from these populations were less likely to attend a four-year institution, attend a selective college, or pursue a bachelor’s degree.

  4. Among the significant differences that exist by race, ethnicity, and gender was the difference in the types of institutions at which students enroll and what they study, “signaling an uneven playing field in the labor market and a threat to the opportunity for intergenerational upward mobility.” The data show that more undergraduate students of color – with the exception of Asian students – were enrolling in and completing their credentials at for-profit colleges.

  5. The data revealed yet another meaningful difference by race and ethnicity in how students pay for college, particularly in the area of student loans, with Black graduates borrowing $4,000 more than the average amount borrowed for either an associate or a bachelor’s degree in academic year 2015-16.

  6. The report also looked at the racial and ethnic diversity gaps among university campus faculty, staff, and administrators. People of color held only 21 percent of all full-time faculty positions, while 45 percent of all undergraduate students identified as people of color. These gaps vary by position type, with larger shares of people of color serving in support staff roles such as campus safety and service/maintenance, compared to campus leadership roles.

The first panel of experts shared their initial reactions to the data, noting how unacceptable these finding were, even if they were not surprising to anyone, as noted by Dr. Sandy Baum, a nonresident fellow in the Education Policy Program at the Urban Institute.

“Invisibility is the new, the modern form, of racism against Native American people. If we don’t see their needs, we’re never going to meet their needs. Invisibility matters.” said Dr. Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA.

Dr. Ibram Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University said that we need to stop looking at the data from a deficit model approach that points the finger at students of color “because there’s something wrong with them [where they came from… the way they were trained before they got to higher education… or the way they operate in higher education].” He offered that we instead look for the policies and institutions that are causing these disparities that exist in places other than just higher education.

A Call to Action

Dr. Sharon Fries-Britt, a professor at the University of Maryland, said what everybody in the audience was feeling and thinking after hearing the dismal data.

“My heart’s heavy. I’m really very disheartened by the compound erosion, particularly for the African American community- and other communities. My entire center of my heart is troubled.” she said with a painstakingly honest tone. “As a professor who’s had to climb the rank” she said referring to her 38-year career in higher education, “I understand what my students have gone through. We’ve lost ground. We’re in 2019 and we’re talking as if this is 1950-something. We as a nation are now at a deficit.” She concluded her response as an audience member with a call to action. “How bold and innovative are we going to be? Because this is no longer acceptable.”

This call to action was the perfect segue into the second panel of experts. The panelists spoke from the higher education perspective as leaders who can make or influence institutional policies that can define the experience for students of color.

Dr. Shaun Harper, executive director of University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, joined two other panelists who addressed the call to action that Dr. Fries-Britt posed to the room. They asked tough questions of our institutions and made bold statements, such as those that came from Dr. Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), and Dr. Julie Park, associate professor at the University of Maryland. Echoing Dr. Harper’s statement that you can’t do racial equity if you can’t talk about race, Dr. Park said it was time for campuses to stop acting like race-neutral spaces.

Start the Conversation

While much of the data highlighted in the report are not new, and they do make anyone’s heart who cares about how our students are faring in higher education quite heavy, NCAN encourages our members to take part in this critical conversation. Our call to action is that you will, among your institutions, organizations, and departments and across your communities and partnerships, ask the brutally hard questions about why our students of color are not obtaining better outcomes in higher education and beyond.

We encourage you to continue doing the sometimes thankless and longitudinal work of leveling the playing field for students of color, first-generation college students, and other underrepresented or marginalized students in higher education.