Laws That Changed Diversity in Higher Education

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  • Over the past half century, higher education has become more diverse.
  • Many laws have impacted the implementation of diversity efforts.
  • Legislation will continue to shape how colleges support diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Institutions of higher education have grown much more diverse over the past few decades. Colleges that once excluded women and people of color now welcome the most diverse classes in their histories to campus.

In 1800, American higher education was exclusively white and male. By comparison, in 2019, people of color earned 38% of all bachelor's degrees granted, and women earned 57% of bachelor's degrees.

This change did not happen overnight. In 1870, women made up just 21% of college students. In 1940, white men were 50% more likely than white women and more than four times as likely than people of color to hold a bachelor's degree. Several laws played important roles in shaping diversity in higher education. These laws forced campuses to open their doors to historically excluded students and changed diversity in higher education forever.

Second Morrill Act of 1890

The Morrill Act of 1862 let states sell land to establish colleges. Within a few decades, states created 69 land-grant institutions. Congress updated the law with the Second Morrill Act of 1890, which included a key provision related to diversity.

"No money shall be paid out under this act to any state or territory for the support and maintenance of a college where a distinction of race or color is made in the admission of students," the 1890 act read. States that used the Second Morrill Act could not discriminate based on race.

But the act had an enormous loophole that shaped higher education. "The establishment and maintenance of such colleges separately for white and colored students shall be held to be a compliance with the provisions of this act," Congress declared.

In practice, states opened "separate but equal" colleges that effectively barred students of color from traditionally white institutions. However, as a side effect of the 1890 act, states established public historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The Second Morrill Act did little to desegregate higher education, but it did increase diversity in higher education by funding HBCUs.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

During the 1960s, civil rights activists fought for more inclusive campuses and criticized discriminatory policies at their schools. When Alabama State College expelled Black students for attending civil rights protests, the students sued. And they won.

In addition to landmark cases like Dixon v. Alabama (1961), new federal laws also bolstered civil rights in higher education. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination on the basis of race. Title VI of the law read, "No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Title VI banned racial discrimination in the country's public and private colleges. The law applies to college admissions, financial aid, student services, academic programs, grading, and housing.

Higher Education Act of 1965

While the Second Morrill Act and Title VI were important milestones, making higher education more diverse goes beyond attempts to reduce discrimination. Diversifying colleges and universities also requires establishing programs designed specifically to help historically excluded groups access higher education.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) made college more accessible to millions of low-income and middle-income students by creating the modern federal student aid program. Between 1965 and the mid-1990s, total student aid increased fifteenfold. Today, the federal student aid office provides over $120 billion in aid annually.

A 1972 revision to the HEA established the Federal Pell Grant program. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education calls Pell Grants the "cornerstone of African American higher education." More than half of Black undergraduates received Pell Grant support in the 2015-2016 academic year.

The HEA also created the Federal Work-Study Program, federal student loans, and outreach programs like the Federal TRIO programs.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial discrimination in higher education. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 banned sex discrimination.

The provision states, "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Today, most people know Title IX because of its impact on collegiate sports. The law requires that colleges offer men and women equal access to participate in organized athletics. As a result, many schools established women's teams for the first time. This also had far-reaching implications beyond college. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, fewer than 4% of girls played sports before Title IX. As of 2016, 40% of girls played sports.

But Title IX impacts more than sports. The provision also protects victims of sexual harassment and assault. It bans sex discrimination in programs traditionally dominated by one gender, promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM and vocational education, as well as many other fields. The law also prohibits colleges from denying admission to pregnant applicants and student parents.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 banned discrimination against people with disabilities. Section 504 extended these protections to colleges that receive federal funding. Colleges cannot discriminate against applicants for disabilities or treat students with disabilities differently.

However, accommodating learners with disabilities continues to be a major challenge in higher education. Thirty-five percent of students with disabilities drop out within their first two years of college. While colleges cannot discriminate against students because of disabilities, these learners often face numerous other hurdles, including inaccessible spaces, technologies that do not meet accessibility standards, and ableism from other students, faculty, and staff.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has made a measurable impact on diversity in higher education. Rather than banning discrimination, affirmative action attempts to increase representation of historically excluded groups on college campuses.

Affirmative action dates back to the civil rights movement, when white Americans made up the vast majority of college students. As late as 1976, more than 80% of college students were white. That number dropped to 57% by 2016 as the higher education landscape became more diverse.

From the beginning, legal challenges have attempted to end affirmative action. In the 1990s, California, Texas, Florida, and Washington banned affirmative action. These bans had an immediate and negative impact on campus diversity. After states banned affirmative action, students of color saw their chances of being admitted into top public institutions drop by 23 percentage points, according to a 2013 study by the Center for American Progress.

In California's state university system, Black students made up 8.1% of the student body in 1997, one year before the state's ban on affirmative action. By 2018, that number had fallen to 4.3%.

Affirmative action reveals the limits of non-discrimination laws. Eliminating measures that also help historically excluded groups access higher education results in less diversity.

Diversity benefits all students on campus. While colleges have grown more diverse in the past century, they must continue to strive for inclusion, equity, and accessibility.

Feature Image: Thomas Barwick / Stone / Getty Images