A Level Playing Field

Higher Ed’s Role In Racial Equity

Published on Feb 14, 2022

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Lightcast

Black History Month is an opportunity for colleges and universities to celebrate and advocate for diversity and equity, both on campus and in their communities. A new paper, Dynamos for Diversity: How Higher Education Can Build a More Equitable Society, argues that a key measure of success in those fields is in students’ economic success after graduation.

For universities to better fulfill their role of enabling students to find success in the job market, they need to help achieve that equity. 

Co-authored by Matt Sigelman, president of The Burning Glass Institute, and Christopher B. Howard, former president of Robert Morris University, the report showed the current challenges for students from diverse backgrounds. Compared to their white and Asian peers, Black and Hispanic students are at an economic disadvantage and less likely to climb the career ladder after graduation. 

But the paper argues that schools are in a position to change this. By shaping the college experience, institutions can better equip their students, and expand their community of learners, and ultimately help their regions grow and develop. This includes thinking about success beyond graduation, and it also means opening the door to more students overall.

Students able to find well-paying jobs become workers well-positioned to invest in their communities. Higher education institutions have always been key drivers of economic success in their regions, which enables them to promote diversity and equity among their students’ jobs and economic futures.

So how can colleges and universities best assist their students from diverse backgrounds?

There isn’t just one lever to pull. Institutions that were most successful in promoting better student outcomes focus on the entire undergraduate experience, which included:

  • Encouraging underrepresented students to consider majors that lead toward financial success, and:

  • Assisting students in landing internships that lead toward well-paying jobs after graduation.

Looking at majors and jobs through a financial lens might feel uncomfortable for college leaders, but if institutions are meant to help address racial inequity in their student and graduate communities, then their goal should be to put alumni in the best possible position to succeed in the workplace.

“Career fields [have] historically lacked diversity in part because institutions themselves have left the onus on student success to the students themselves,” Sigelman and Howard write. “Now, helping students is both a moral and financial imperative for institutions.” 

Using Emsi Burning Glass data, the institute found that Black and Hispanic students were most likely to be enrolled in majors with the higher rates of underemployment. Institutions can address that trend through scholarships and other programs that encourage students of color to consider fields that provide higher career earnings.

The paper also found that internships are correlated with future success, and that Black and Hispanic students are less likely to gain that hands-on experience than Asian and white students. Because internships are so important, schools should make a systematic effort to ensure underrepresented students have access to those opportunities. By learning from employers what skills are in demand, schools can also make sure their programs will be useful for students.

How can schools promote diversity among the broader community?

For institutions to create meaningful change in their commitment to diversity, they must reach beyond their base of traditional-age students. There will always be 18-year-olds enrolling in colleges, but focusing too closely on those students leaves everyone else on the sidelines.  Targeting classes and training to those already in the workforce can help workers in lower-skilled jobs earn promotions and pay raises.

Universities are in the perfect position to teach those workers the skills they need to find better occupations. By learning what skills employers need, institutions can develop programs that provide the exact type of training they need for those positions. 

For example, research found that sales workers or computer support specialists (who are more likely to be people of color) are just a few skills away from better jobs being wholesale sales representatives or database administrators, respectively. Schools who recognize those needs can provide that training through non-degree classes and also connect those workers with local employers.

Programs like these promote growth and economic success at both the individual and community levels, and can help address the economic disparity between people from different racial groups. That success benefits the students, alumni, and regions universities exist to serve. 

The full paper, presented by The Burning Glass Institute and sponsored by Workday, is available here.