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By Ji Hye “Jane” Kim

This brief was made possible through generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Although the population of U.S. postsecondary students has become more diverse over time, racially and ethnically minoritized students remain underrepresented in graduate fields. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2021a), Hispanic or Latino and Black or African American students represented 12.3 percent and 13.9 percent of all graduate enrollment in fall 2020, respectively, while White students constituted 61 percent. American Indian or Alaska Native and Pacific Islander students only represented 0.5 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively.[1] With the exception of Asian students, all students of color were underrepresented in graduate education when compared with their representation in the overall U.S. population; however, this was particularly pronounced among Hispanic or Latino students, whose share in total graduate enrollment was 6.4 percentage points lower than their share in the overall U.S. population in 2020 (18.7 percent) (U.S. Census Bureau 2021).[2]

Comparison with undergraduate enrollment data also highlights similar patterns in the underrepresentation of students of color in graduate education. The share of students who were Hispanic or Latino, in particular, was much lower in graduate enrollment (12.3 percent) than in undergraduate enrollment for fall 2020 (21.8 percent). Representation of Black or African American and Indigenous students in graduate education were more similar to their representation among undergraduate education than that of Hispanic or Latino students, although gaps remain.[3] In contrast, the share of White students was much higher in graduate enrollment (61 percent) than in undergraduate enrollment (52.8 percent) (National Center for Education Statistics 2021a). The disparity in representation of students of color enrolled in graduate education compared with White students suggests that institutions may need to structure their practices to make sure students of color have smooth pathways into graduate education.

Once enrolled in graduate education, equity gaps emerge among fields of study. Hispanic or Latino, Black or African American, and Indigenous students were less likely to be enrolled and complete credentials in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Data from the 2021 Survey of Earned Doctorates reveals that White doctoral degree recipients were more likely to complete in STEM fields, while Hispanic or Latino, Black or African American, and Indigenous students were most likely to study fields outside of science and engineering, such as social or behavioral sciences and education (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics 2022). These differences in the field of study among doctoral degree recipients reflect persistent equity gaps (Espinosa et al. 2019; Taylor et al. 2020) and highlight the need not only to broaden pathways into graduate education overall but also to pay specific attention to the field in which students enroll and complete their credentials. This is particularly important as STEM fields tend to have a high return on investment in terms of median annual earnings when compared with other fields (Espinosa et al. 2019).

Racial disparities in graduate education are problematic because they not only limit educational opportunities for a particular group of students, but they also contribute to perpetuating inequality in the entire higher education system by creating a “ripple effect” (Wilson 1988). For example, fewer Black or African American students in postsecondary education at undergraduateand graduate levels will likely result in fewer Black or African American faculty, which in turn affects the availability of role models and resources for Black or African American college students (Kalbfleisch and Davies 1991; Nora 2003; Wilson 1988). In fall 2020, only 5.7 percent of full-time faculty were Black or African American (National Center for Education Statistics 2021b), well below the share of undergraduate and graduate students who were Black or African American.

If barriers based on characteristics such as race and ethnicity limit who pursues graduate education, it harms not only individual students or the education system but also society as a whole. If diverse perspectives are not represented and incorporated, society will lose the capacity to fully leverage talent to address complicated issues (Page 2007). In addition, research that these barriers can exacerbate other existing societal problems. For example, many studies have built empirical evidence for the association between graduate degree attainment and higher social and economic status after graduation (Posselt and Grodsky 2017). Barriers to advanced degrees can therefore further the economic injustice that many communities of color face across the nation.

The evidence discussed speaks to the amount of work that still remains in order to achieve racial equity in postsecondary education, particularly in the pathway to graduate education. The practice of mentoring, however, has shown promising results in encouraging historically minoritized students to pursue graduate education.[4] Effective mentoring practices can provide these students with useful information and experiences that are helpful in realizing their academic interests, developing an identity as a researcher, connecting them with faculty and peers in their field of interest, demystifying pathways into graduate school, and learning specific knowledge and skills needed for their graduate studies (Davis 2007; Spalter-Roth et al. 2013; Thomas, Willis, and Davis 2007).

This brief provides an overview of research and current practices on college mentoring, with particular attention to the benefits for historically minoritized students, and it explores the characteristics of mentoring that are effective in helping those students pursue graduate studies. Based on lessons from research and practice, this brief also provides considerations for campus leaders who want to implement effective mentoring practices for historically minoritized students that broaden the pathways to graduate study.


[1] Data reflect enrollment in postbaccalaureate education at degree-granting institutions in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Data only reflect students who were U.S. residents and exclude international students (National Center for Education Statistics 2021a).

[2] According to the 2020 Census, the majority of the U.S. population was White (57.8 percent), followed by Hispanic or Latino (18.7 percent), Black or African American (12.1 percent), Asian (5.9 percent), people of more than one race (4.1 percent), American Indian or Alaska Native (0.7 percent), and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (0.2 percent) (U.S. Census Bureau 2021).

[3] Indigenous students include those who are American Indian or Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.

[4] This brief uses the term historically minoritized to emphasize that individuals are not born into a minority status. Rather, systemic structures, such as racism, oppress individuals into a minority status (Harper 2012). In this brief, historically minoritized is used to refer specifically to Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and Indigenous students.

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About the Author

Ji Hye “Jane” Kim, Associate Analyst, Education Futures Lab, American Council on Education