The growing mismatch between the profiles of current full-time faculty, 75 percent of whom are white, and the nation’s increasingly diverse undergraduate student bodies, 45 percent of whom are people of color, represents a serious threat to socioeconomic and racial equity and intergenerational mobility.

In spite of a generation of comprehensive targeted enrichment interventions from the undergraduate through postdoctoral fellowship stages, public and privately-funded efforts to increase the number of PhDs from historically underserved populations has been painstakingly slow. There is a grudging consensus among academic leaders, scholars, and funders that there are no silver bullets when it comes to diversifying the faculty ranks, far too many excuses to explain the lack of progress, and growing pressure from a rapidly changing undergraduate minority—soon to be majority—population to redress higher education’s long-standing racial disparities and inequities.

In response to the unacceptably low numbers of students of color who complete a doctorate in the arts and sciences in preparation for careers inside and adjacent to the academy, Bard College and the Open Society University Network (OSUN) engaged Ithaka S+R to research best practices and lessons learned from a generation of efforts to diversify the ranks of future PhDs and provide recommendations on the types of programs or interventions worth pursuing. Today, we publish our findings, which include a snapshot of the current state of diversity among doctoral candidates, PhD recipients, and within faculty ranks and the breaks in the pipeline where we lose students of color. We also describe existing post-baccalaureate (post-bacc) programs and highlight a promising, but underutilized, strategy that deserves serious consideration and investment.

Our findings will be of interest to higher education leaders, faculty, graduate school deans, directors of graduate study, researchers, and funders. Here are our key takeaways:

  • Post-bacc programs, through their required components and design features, address academic preparation and research experience, financial insecurity, and low social capital among students of color and lower-income backgrounds following the completion of their undergraduate education, a critical juncture in the PhD pathway.
  • Few programs currently prepare students of color and lower-income backgrounds for admission to graduate school in the arts and sciences, and the ones that do are extremely competitive, oversubscribed, and predominantly enroll students from selective institutions. This includes a sizable cohort that had previously decided to apply to graduate school and have demonstrated the scholarly potential to succeed in doctoral programs.
  • There is an untapped pool of talented students from less selective, under-resourced institutions who would benefit from access to the support post-bacc programs provide, including advanced coursework, research opportunities, mentorship, and cohort-based intellectual community.

Our report strongly suggests that second-generation efforts to diversify the professoriate must acknowledge that the academic job market has been shrinking for over a generation and that graduate schools are beginning to prepare new PhDs for expanded career possibilities. We encourage extending the range of PhD pathways to include teaching in early college, microcollege, higher education in prison, reentry, and adult education programs. At the same time, our primary goal is to diversify faculty ranks across all sectors of the academy. A post-bacc bridge program that prepares talented students of color and lower-income backgrounds to enter graduate school, complete PhDs, and pursue a variety of academic and professional opportunities will narrow the gap between opportunity and advantage.

Where do we go from here and what’s next for Ithaka S+R?

We are interested in working with higher education and philanthropic leaders to significantly expand the pool of students of color and lower-income backgrounds in post-bacc bridge programs, and look to less selective schools, which are an untapped resource, to meet the demand. Ithaka S+R will continue efforts to support meaningful access and equitable educational opportunities for historically underserved populations.