Although increasing the racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses is a key component of any broad policy agenda aimed at reducing structural inequality, access to higher education does not always equate to graduation and equal labor market opportunities. For colleges, students, and society to reap the benefits of diversity, there needs to be more than just a diverse student population in colleges; there needs to be representation of all groups across all fields of study.
To understand whether increasing diversity on campus is translating to equal access to opportunity, we examine racial and ethnic representation across college majors over time, finding that Asian, Black, and Hispanic students are often concentrated in majors with other students of the same race or ethnicity and that at institutions where Black and Hispanic segregation is worst, these students are least likely to graduate with high-paying degrees.
We examine racial and ethnic imbalance within higher education institutions by using segregation indexes to summarize racial and ethnic sorting inside universities. We analyze whether students of different races or ethnicities are over- or underrepresented in certain fields of study, relative to the institutions they attend.
- Asian students are most likely to be overrepresented in their fields of study relative to their share of enrollment, while white students are most likely to be spread out evenly among majors. Hispanic and Black students fall in the middle.
- Patterns of average racial exposure within colleges reveal that, across all racial and ethnic groups, the group that college students are exposed to most frequently are white students, because they are the majority group in many colleges.
- Within-college segregation has been stable for most groups over time, with the exception of Hispanic students, who have become increasingly integrated across majors.
- Institutions where Black students are overrepresented in certain majors relative to enrollment tend to graduate lower shares of Black students in high-paying majors. The same negative relationship is not observed for other racial and ethnic groups.
- Except for the segregation of Asian students, most racial and ethnic groups’ within-college segregation levels are not as dramatic as benchmark segregation levels across neighborhoods or K–12 schools.
These findings underscore that segregation within colleges has a negative impact on equity of opportunity for historically disadvantaged groups, but there are actions policymakers and college administrators can take. Increasing the number of faculty members of color and providing major-specific information to students may encourage Black and Hispanic students to choose highly remunerated majors more frequently. College officials could also do more to support Black and Hispanic students declaring such majors as engineering and business.
It is also critical to address what happens before students enroll in college. Deep and pervasive segregation in K–12 schools means that Black and Hispanic students have fewer resources and less experienced teachers to prepare them for rigorous college coursework. Financial constraints may also impede Black and Hispanic students from remaining in college for as long as it takes to complete a degree. Addressing within-college segregation will require change not just in higher education but earlier in the education pipeline as well.