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Higher Ed’s Watershed Moment for Access and Equity

As we head into a new normal, higher ed has the opportunity to better their equity and accessibility for their students to provide the same employment opportunities for everyone who walks in the door. 

Employers struggle to build diverse talent pipelines. Despite many well-intentioned efforts, most are still falling short on their diversity hiring goals. One of the biggest reasons for it is that higher education, too, struggles to recruit, enroll and graduate minority and underserved students. Moving forward, every major employer in the U.S. has made talent diversity a goal. This represents higher education’s watershed moment for access and equity.

Higher education headlines have been filled with competing stories about the impact of test-optional admissions. It’s becoming clear that the accelerated decline of standardized tests as a requirement for admissions has had significant impact: extraordinary growth in applications to the country’s most prestigious private and flagship public universities but a precipitous decline in applications to schools that serve lower income and more diverse students

What’s more in this concerning story line is the widely held notion that going test-optional would enable higher education institutions to attract not just more student applicants but help build a more diverse student body. It remains to be seen whether colleges will use this inflection point to actually enroll more–and more diverse–students this fall and beyond, not just to support their own mission but that of their core constituents: the employers that hire their graduates.

It is well known that employers from every corner of the world have embarked on a dual mission:  to undertake digital transformations that require corresponding human capital transformations, and to ensure that this transformation results in a significantly more diverse and inclusive workforce.  

A recent study by Microsoft projects that digital job capacity–or the total number of technology-oriented jobs–will increase nearly five-fold by 2025, rising from 41 million in 2020 to 190 million in 2025. Ironically, 2025 has a different meaning in higher ed circles:  it is the year when the “demographic cliff” hits universities with a multi-generational low number of college-age students.

Arguably of greater importance is the tremendous and long overdue imperative for companies to increase the diversity of their workforce. A recent LinkedIn survey found that 77% of corporate talent professionals say that diversity will be very important to the future of recruiting, especially since most companies are putting significant resources toward ensuring front-line managers actually be held accountable for considering a more diverse slate of candidates. It is further encouraging that a majority of U.S. employers surveyed (56%) say that they are updating their recruitment strategies to reflect the DEI strategies of their company. While these are arguably modest tangible steps, the implications are clear:  employers need to cultivate a much more diverse talent pool, and as the largest area of employment growth is in technology, the need is particularly urgent for diverse tech workers.

The biggest current pipeline for new workers is and always has been our higher education institutions. On this front, though, the news is mixed. A deep dive on the latest IPEDS data shows that just over 5 million people graduated with an advanced credential in the 2018-19 school year–that’s everyone from pre-bachelor certificates through doctoral candidates. In terms of diversity, there has been little overall change in the last 20 years in the percentage of total graduates that are persons of color (POC).  A pre-pandemic study by the New York Times details how the numbers are not any better with our most prestigious institutions

Diving deeper into the pool of graduates with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) credentials, the numbers tell an even more troubling story. In 2018-19, there were only 780,188 STEM degrees or certificates conferred by higher ed institutions, and only 140,996 were Black or Latinx (8% and 13% respectfully). When 67% of tech companies are currently comprised of fewer than 5% of Black employees, and when an additional 149 MILLION technology jobs are projected to be filled in the next five years, it’s clear that we could find awesome jobs for every graduate and still fall way behind on our DEI imperatives, not to mention be 145 million candidates short of filling our needs for highly skilled technology workers.

For generations, America’s higher education institutions–from the most local community colleges to our most prestigious, globally ranked research universities–have risen to the challenges of our time:  upskilling workers, developing cures for disease, and graduating the world’s best workers across all sectors of society. Now, as we begin to contemplate the post-pandemic world, there is a mutual imperative for employers and higher education institutions to step up to some of the next big challenges of our time.  

Higher education leaders who find themselves with a newfound bounty of diverse applicants should challenge themselves to serve more students instead of simply viewing it as an opportunity to become more selective. There are a few university leaders who have demonstrated that choosing growth through quality pays significant dividends to the university community as well as their stakeholders:  students, families, and employers. Oh, and it will make that 2025 demographic cliff look more like a speed bump for higher education!

As we enter a new decade–and (hopefully) soon exit this global pandemic–we have the opportunity and imperative to tackle the intransigent lack of diverse, qualified workers to power our 21st century economy. I am hopeful that our educational institutions will rise to the task.

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