Racial and Ethnic Representation in Postsecondary Education

Research Report

Racial and Ethnic Representation in Postsecondary Education


The US population is becoming more educated, but large gaps in postsecondary attainment based on race or ethnicity remain, particularly at more selective colleges. As a growing number of jobs require a college degree, it is imperative to increase college access among all racial and ethnic groups.

In this report, we examined whether different racial and ethnic groups have equal access to higher education by looking at representativeness across postsecondary institutions. We constructed a new measure that compares each college’s racial and ethnic demographics with the demographics of the college’s market, evaluating whether each racial or ethnic group is over- or underrepresented at individual colleges and college sectors, relative to that college’s or sector’s pool of potential students. We confirm the presence and persistence of large national gaps in representation and find that Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented at more selective schools in ways that cannot be explained by differences in community demographics.

A New Measurement of Representativeness

Other studies have used state-level racial and ethnic composition to measure a college’s representativeness, but we focused more narrowly on the pool of students who might actually attend a given school. To create our measure of representativeness, we defined a “market” for each college based on the distance most students are willing to travel to attend different types of institutions. Then, we compared the racial and ethnic composition of the college with that of the college’s market. The measure of college representativeness is the difference in a racial or ethnic group’s share of college enrollment from that group’s share of the college market population. We also control for state differences and market composition to ensure trends in over- or underrepresentation are not based solely on differences in a market.

Enrollment Patterns across US Colleges in 2017–18

We find widespread patterns of over- and underrepresentation among different racial and ethnic groups, especially at more selective colleges. Our key findings include the following:

  • Black representation at nonselective and selective colleges is representative of schools’ pool of potential students, but Black students have been, and continue to be, severely underrepresented at more selective colleges. Black representation at public and private universities is nearly identical, meaning that public institutions do no better than their private counterparts at serving their communities. Black students are also overrepresented at for-profit schools by nearly 15 percentage points.
  • Hispanic students have gained representation at less selective public colleges and community colleges since 2009. As a result, Hispanic students are well represented at less selective colleges, but Hispanic representation is still low at more selective universities. There is significant variation in Hispanic representation at more selective institutions between states.
  • Though overrepresentation of white students at more selective public universities has been decreasing since 2009, white students still tend to be overrepresented at more selective colleges. During this same period, white students have become more underrepresented at community colleges.
  • Asian students are also overrepresented at more selective institutions. Asian representation at less selective colleges is fairly representative of these colleges’ pool of potential students, and representation across all sectors has been steady since 2009.
  • Native American students have become more underrepresented at more selective colleges, and Native American representation at for-profit institutions has been increasing since 2009.
  • Pacific Islanders are slightly underrepresented at public and private universities across all sectors and are increasingly overrepresented at for-profit institutions.

Policy Implications

Our results indicate that a range of factors beyond local demographic composition affect a college’s student body composition. Admissions and tuition policies, state appropriations for higher education, beliefs about the value of college, and local labor market demand all play a role. Estimates of representation are best interpreted on a case-by-case basis and with a deep understanding of local context, as in our accompanying data visualization feature. To better understand the principal drivers of these gaps in representation, researchers, administrators, and policymakers need to better understand how structural racism and systemic barriers manifest in college admissions policies.


This report was updated on June 22, 2020. We updated the title of table 5 to accurately reflect the data shown.

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