Charting the Diversity Landscape

Charting the Diversity Landscape

Delineating worsening inequities in underrepresented student access to higher education

Long-standing preparedness gaps contribute to the underrepresentation of minority, low-income, and first-generation students on campus. While higher education leaders agree on the need to increase diversity, these gaps create critical barriers for enrolling a diverse class.

This white paper explains the resulting pipeline problem, especially at selective colleges and universities, and three contemporary forces that make increasing diversity on campus more difficult than ever before. Download the entire publication or explore the key takeaways below to learn more about these challenges in enrolling students from underrepresented populations.

More on this topic

This resource is part of the Improve Recruitment of Underrepresented Students Roadmap. Access the Roadmap for stepwise guidance with additional tools and research.

The state of diversity: Preparedness gaps contribute to lack of representation in higher ed

Diversity shortfalls at colleges and universities reflect a preparedness gap shaped by social inequities. While this reality does not excuse colleges and universities from attempting to remedy this inequality, the relative shortage of qualified candidates makes it difficult for enrollment managers (EMs) to immediately inflect change.


Total pool of "undermatchers"
Total pool of “undermatchers”

Test scores are illustrative of the preparedness gap and resulting pipeline problem. Few underrepresented students currently qualify for admission based on their test scores. Low-income, black, and Hispanic students cluster at the bottom of the score distribution.

Enrolling more students who “undermatch” to less selective institutions will not solve current diversity shortfalls. In a now-famous 2012 study, Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery identified a pool of high ability, low-income students who do not enroll at selective universities. Although low-income, these “undermatchers” are predominately and disproportionately white.

3 forces intensify campus pressure and competition around diversity

Campus leaders agree on the need to increase diversity. These imperatives include delivering on access and land grant missions, contributing to social mobility and a diverse workforce, and fulfilling a pedagogical case for the value of diversity. Three forces are intensifying the present focus on campus diversity:


Estimated drop in applications if The New York Times covers an institutional scandal in a long-form magazine article
Estimated drop in applications if The New York Times covers an institutional scandal in a long-form magazine article

1. Evolving campus climate

Negative perceptions of campus climate may lead underrepresented students to feel unwelcome. For instance, campus activism on diversity issues may dissuade underrepresented students from applying to or attending an institution. The resulting enrollment declines then exacerbate existing gaps at universities already struggling to improve diversity.

Student activists are also increasingly making demands that directly impact Enrollment Management operations. Groups that feel marginalized or tokenized are refusing to participate in recruitment events and pushing for increased enrollment of certain populations—and even guarantees of free tuition.

2. Widening K-12 preparedness gaps

“The most daunting part is that eligibility rates have barely budged in the last 20 years. Until we come up with some solutions for that, no amount of regional diversity is going to fix this problem.”

Vice President for Enrollment Management, Flagship University in the West

Even as underrepresented groups make up a greater share of the traditional college-age population, demographics alone will not solve for current lack of diversity. A larger number of future high school graduates will come from populations impacted by preparedness gaps, intensifying the existing pipeline problem.

Given this, the trade-offs institutions have long made between increasing access and improving academic quality will become increasingly problematic as more high school graduates lack the preparation and qualifications for admission.

3. Enrollments increasingly concentrated at open-access colleges and universities

Despite improvement to their overall college-going rate, low-income students—regardless of qualifications—typically enroll at less selective institutions, community colleges, and for-profits. The trends in enrollment by income are also true by race/ethnicity. Black and Hispanic students increasingly enroll at open access colleges and universities, including community colleges.

Read the other white papers in the series

A proliferation of college access programs fails to combat under-enrollment of underrepresented minority and low-income students. Discover how colleges and universities can increase the college-going rate of underrepresented populations through pipeline improvement efforts.

Parents are key influencers on college enrollment for all students, but the parents of first-generation students are less likely to expect their children to enroll in college than parents with postsecondary experience. Explore our white paper for four best practices to increase first-generation student enrollment by engaging their parents.

To enroll more underrepresented students, enrollment managers must alleviate student concerns and minimize process barriers. Explore the nine best practices to craft an application process tailored to the needs of each underrepresented applicant.

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