Study Indicates Little Progress in the Diversification of College and University Presidents

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According to the eighth edition of the American Council on Education’s (ACE) American College President Study (ACPS), which analyzed 2016 data from 1,500 colleges and universities, the top ranks of higher education leadership continue to be demographically homogeneous.

The ACPS, which is conducted every four to five years, was last published in 2011, when 26.4 percent of college and university presidents were women and 12.6 percent were minorities. The latest study reveals that those numbers have increased to 30.1 percent and 16.8 percent, respectively.

These numbers indicate that women continue to account for less than one-third of college and university presidents, despite the fact that more than half of all college students are female. Additionally, less than one-third of higher education presidents are racial and ethnic minorities; in contrast, more than 40 percent of students are from minority backgrounds, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The ACPS also found that the average age of college presidents has significantly increased from when the study was first conducted in 1986, when 42 percent of presidents were 50 or younger. As of 2016, that number was 10 percent, indicating that schools may be prioritizing experience level over diversity when it comes to choosing an institutional leader. Because college and university presidents have traditionally been white men, these individuals often have more experience in the field and are therefore in higher demand, according to an ACE press release.

Even Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), where only 36 percent of presidents are minorities, struggle to diversify their upper ranks; in 2011, 53 percent of MSI presidents were from minority groups. Despite this decrease, MSIs still constituted a significant percentage of the overall number of schools with minority presidents, with 5.8 percent. Additionally, just 10.6 percent of private nonprofit institutions had minority presidents.

Despite expressing concern over these findings, ACE officials say they believe the results of the ACPS will strengthen higher education’s diversity efforts. “Diversifying the college presidency will only continue to grow in importance, especially as the nation’s student body grows ever more diverse,” ACE President Molly Corbett Broad said in a statement. “I am hopeful that this research will help chart a course for the future of higher education leadership.”