More colleges now require students to take an ethnic studies course, but barriers like COVID-19 may decrease the number of students of color at these schools.

Colleges Add Diversity Reqs but Risk Losing Students of Color


  • Black student and faculty activists have long demanded changes to noninclusive curricula.
  • In response, many colleges are adding an ethnic studies gen ed requirement.
  • This change comes as early enrollment figures reveal fewer Black students on campus.

Several U.S. colleges, including all public universities in California, have announced plans to add a course in ethnic studies to their general education requirements. Yet while colleges attempt to diversify their curricula in response to long-standing calls from students and faculty of color, campus populations are at risk of becoming less diverse.

According to recent enrollment data, far fewer Black students attended college this summer. Early fall numbers at some institutions also show a drop in Black student enrollment, particularly for in-person learning.

According to recent enrollment data, far fewer Black students attended college this summer.

Students of color are more concerned about the virus — and more impacted by the pandemic's economic fallout. Surveys conducted over the summer show that while most students want classes to remain online, students of color are especially likely to choose online education this year.

As colleges push to change building names, replace racist statues, and integrate more diverse curricula, the extra barriers to education posed by COVID-19 could make college campuses whiter than they've ever been.

COVID-19 Could Keep Students of Color Off Campus

Over the past two decades, college enrollment has risen across most racial groups. Black and Hispanic students have seen the greatest gains. From 2000 to 2016, the share of young Black people going to college increased 5 percentage points, while that of young Hispanic people increased 17 percentage points.

For many students of color, college may not feel safe or affordable this year.

But COVID-19 threatens to reverse these wins. This summer's undergraduate enrollment numbers for Black students dropped a whopping 8 percentage points compared to last summer. While most colleges have not yet released fall enrollment data, Williams College in Massachusetts reported that its on-campus population this term is not as racially and ethnically diverse as the student body as a whole, or as the college has been in previous years.

For many students of color, college may not feel safe or affordable this year. According to a national student survey conducted in late July, more Black and Latino/a students report feeling "very worried" about contracting the virus than white students.

Additionally, students of color are more likely to feel financially insecure as a result of COVID-19-related layoffs. Whereas just 43% of white parents said the pandemic was forcing their child's post-high school education plans to change, 59% of Black parents and 61% of Latino/a parents said the same.

Diversity Classes Are Now Required to Graduate

This summer, colleges moved to address their racist legacies by removing monuments and building names. Some introduced anti-racism curricula through webinars and employee training. This fall, several colleges will add diversity and inclusion, or ethnic studies, to gen ed course requirements.

Anti-racism courses aim to build empathy and establish context.

Anti-racism courses aim to build empathy and establish context, covering key topics like white privilege, institutional racism, and the history of racial injustice in the U.S. Depending on what classes are available, students may take a wide-angle view of racial minorities or zero in on a particular group.

California State University students, who are now required by law to take a diversity course in order to graduate, can choose from courses in Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies, or Latino/a studies. (Critics of the new requirement say these requirements overlook other minorities, such as Jewish and Hindu people.)

But not all institutions have responded to the community push to make ethnic studies mandatory. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, says it already offers enough courses and learning opportunities in this area. Some of the university's colleges, including its honors college and College of Arts and Sciences, boast standing ethnic studies requirements and thus don't see a need to add another class.

Improving Education Outcomes for Students of Color

While diversity and inclusion as a subject area is experiencing a groundswell of support among schools and college students, actual diversity within higher education could suffer a setback.

These days, most colleges are far whiter than the states they serve — and that includes many of the schools that plan to introduce an ethnic studies gen ed requirement. A recent report graded selective research institutions by how well their undergraduate student bodies represent the diversity of their state. Eight California institutions scored an F.

These days, most colleges are far whiter than the states they serve — and that includes many of the schools that plan to introduce an ethnic studies gen ed requirement.

Over recent years, college attendance rates have risen for Black and brown students, inching toward greater equality in an education system that's been called "the most unequal in the industrialized world."

When campus diversity increases, the education gap starts to close. But when it declines — as recent enrollment data suggests is happening now — those hard-won gains slip away.

In addition to expanding curricula and diversifying monuments, colleges will be on the hook for getting a more representative spectrum of students to campus amid the ongoing public health crisis. Some educators say colleges should be ready to adopt and adapt policy in order to reach disadvantaged students hit hard by the pandemic, but whether or not they'll do this remains to be seen.


Feature Image: Octavio Jones / Stringer / Getty Images News