Diversity Among Higher Education Admission Professionals Is More Important Than Ever

By David Hawkins and Tara Nicola

August 16, 2017

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By David Hawkins & Tara Nicola

The population of students entering higher education is more diverse than at any point in our nation’s history, with continued, significant growth ahead. According to data from the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, 45 percent of the country’s public high school graduates will be non-white by 2020.

As the high school population in the United States grows increasingly diverse, so too should those professionals who work on college campuses. Research has shown that improving the diversity of university faculty and staff is important: It improves the learning outcomes of students (Milem, 2003) while also creating a more inclusive campus climate where incidents of discrimination and bias are less prevalent (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).

Diversity is especially critical in college and university admission offices. Admission counselors not only serve as the face of their respective institutions to prospective students, they also are responsible for shaping the future of the university through admitting each incoming class. However, the latest research from our organization, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), suggests university admission offices are far from diverse.

In November 2016, NACAC, in collaboration with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), undertook a study of 559 institutional chief admission officers to better understand their career paths, aspirations and primary responsibilities in the enrollment management field. Data revealed that an astounding 85 percent of survey participants were white—only 8 percent identified as Black/African American, and even fewer identified as Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaskan Native or multi-racial.

This data mirrors results from a 2014 NACAC survey that indicated 80 percent of all admission officers, including entry- and senior-level professionals, at U.S. institutions identified as white, non-Hispanic. Strikingly, communities of color were underrepresented within all segments of the admission profession; this was especially true at the senior level, where only 16 percent of directors of admission were non-white.

Our data further show not only that administrators of color had lower average lengths of tenure in their position than their white peers, but also that they were the most likely to leave the admission counseling field altogether. Only 14 percent of white, non-Hispanic professionals were seeking a new career outside of admissions, but 73.7 percent of Black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic and multi-racial respondents were exploring other opportunities (NACAC, 2014).

Issues concerning diversity—including the retention of administrators of color—is not limited to the admission counseling profession. Studies have found more generally that despite higher education institutions increasingly championing the importance of diversity on their campuses, their staff are overwhelmingly homogenous. In fact, 2013 employment data from the U.S. Department of Education indicated that minorities represented only a quarter of all student affairs employees in postsecondary institutions (Snyder et al., 2016). This trend is further reflected in senior leadership, where the percentage of college presidents who are racial or ethnic minorities stands at just 16.8 percent (American Council on Education, 2017).

Factors Affecting Diversity in Higher Education Administration

So why are there so few minorities in higher education administration? As researchers Wolfe & Dilworth (2015) describe, three factors are largely to blame: leaks in the educational pipeline, insufficient recruitment efforts and low retention rates.

First, there is the issue of supply. Although the postsecondary participation and completion rates of students of color have significantly increased over the past century, white students are still the most likely to attend and graduate from college. This is confirmed by 2013 data from the U.S. Department of Education, which indicates that 66 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 61 percent of master’s qualifications were awarded to white students (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). Hostile campus climates, especially at predominantly white institutions, and insufficient financial aid represent two additional elements contributing to the attrition of underserved students in higher education (Hurtado & Guillermo-Wann, 2013).

Another factor is attracting individuals of color to the higher education administration profession and working to ensure that search committees are racially and ethnically diverse and aware of their own biases and preferences. Retention is also a significant hurdle. The research literature has identified a number of barriers to retention that administrators of color face, including inhospitable working environments; limited access to mentoring and sponsorship programs; marginalization; and tokenism (Wolfe & Dilworth, 2015).

Seminal work by M.J. Barr in 1990 identified barriers to retention specific to African American administrators, including a lack of a professional identity and strenuous working conditions. These factors hold true for the admission counseling profession nearly 30 years on, where professionals work demanding hours while simultaneously navigating a career that lacks a defined path. Because there is no set trajectory for advancement in the admission counseling field, administrators often look outside of higher education for job opportunities. This is especially true at the entry-level, where the annual turnover rate exceeds 30 percent (NACAC, 2014).

What Can Be Done?

Research has identified a number of practical steps that postsecondary institutions can implement to strengthen the retention of administrators of color. Jerlando Jackson (2001) outlined eight such practices that colleges and universities should consider:

  • Commit to the principles of diversity by offering diversity and/or cultural competency training to all personnel.
  • Emphasize diversity in the recruitment process through actively seeking a diverse group of candidates and ensuring all university staff involved in the hiring process are aware of the university’s diversity goals.
  • Establish an orientation program to introduce new administrators to stakeholders in the local community as well as other staff, faculty, and students on campus.
  • Develop a mentoring program whereby junior staff are paired with senior professionals who can guide them through navigating the political and social environments on campus.
  • Offer competitive salaries that are equitable and sufficient.
  • Foster open lines of communication by providing constructive feedback about an administrator’s performance.
  • Empower administrators by inviting input in decision-making processes fosters a more inclusive environment, which nurtures professional growth.
  • Support the professional development aspirations of administrators. Encourage participation in development opportunities offered by professional groups and other organizations both on and off campus.

An institution’s commitment to diversifying its staff is a good first step in addressing the shortage of underrepresented minority professionals in higher education administration. But it is not enough. Effectively recruiting and retaining administrators of color requires specific institutional support structures and policies developed through proactive, long-term planning. Only by explicitly addressing the factors that fuel this shortage can racial disparities be ameliorated.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

About the Authors

David Hawkins

Tara Nicola

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