Graduate School for Students of Color

Students of color face significant challenges. This guide provides tips and resources for students of color who are interested in graduate school.

portrait of Bernard Grant, Ph.D.
by Bernard Grant, Ph.D.

Updated June 27, 2022

Reviewed by Pamela “Safisha Nzingha” Hill, Ph.D.

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Graduate School for Students of Color
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The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2060, 57% of the U.S. population will be people of color. Thirty-five percent of students in graduate schools across the U.S. are people of color.

A lack of generational wealth, discrimination, hate crimes, and neglect from faculty and administration can hinder students of color from pursuing graduate school. This guide supports students of color who want to pursue advanced degrees in graduate school.

What Is a Graduate Program?

In graduate school, students pursue advanced degrees to prepare for academic, research, and leadership roles. These degrees include master’s, doctoral, and professional degree programs.

Unlike undergraduate degrees, which require various general education courses, graduate degree programs generally require courses within a specific field of study. Some programs, such as Ph.D. programs, include a wider range of studies. Graduate students don’t necessarily have to study the same subject they studied as undergraduates. Students often pursue graduate degrees to follow specific career paths.

Graduate school often improves a person’s chances of finding their career of choice. While full-time enrollment is most common, students with children, full-time jobs, or other obligations benefit from part-time or online programs.

Challenges Students of Color Face

American history has disproportionately negatively impacted people of color. Students of color continue to experience exclusion at higher education institutions. History influences the present. The racist barriers students of color face include discriminatory policies and the discriminatory behaviors of other students and faculty.

Administration and faculty who believe people of color are dangerous or lack intelligence may reject applications from students of color. They may also neglect or mistreat students of color who are enrolled in their programs.

Graduate school is an intense, competitive environment—no matter your background. Graduate Programs are more difficult for students of color in universities that lack an understanding of the inequities many students of color face.

Many students of color face microaggressions, feel isolated, or say they feel excluded and unsupported by their peers and faculty. At some schools like Stanford, programs for students of color are not always adequately funded or nurtured.

Many students of color fear hate crimes, which remain a threat. For example, in 2021 a noose was found at Princeton University. In 2019, there was a string of hate crimes at Syracuse University. Protests against hate crimes take place on college campuses nationwide each year.

Low generational wealth within BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities means that students of color can also be financially disadvantaged when pursuing graduate education. Application fees and fees for admissions tests can also hinder students of color from applying to graduate school. Other financial barriers for students of color include relocation costs and dependence on student loans.

Choosing the Right Graduate School for You

How did your identity as a student and person of color influence your graduate school experience?

Being a person of color and student influences my graduate school experience with the understanding that my opinion, perspective, and work are all valuable. Uniqueness as an individual has influenced and driven me to apply for need-based/minority scholarships. The greatest influence that being a person of color has had on my graduate school experience is the motivation to reach the highest academic level that was unavailable to [people like] me 100 years ago. My identity as a person of color and student further instills a relentless work ethic and encompasses an invigorating graduate school experience.

— Amber Williams, Northcentral University Graduate School Student

Students of color should research schools’ cultural climate to determine whether their graduate program will provide an inclusive environment. Some ways to determine whether a certain graduate school supports students of color include researching the school’s anti-discrimination policies and disciplinary processes to learn how the school handles incidents of hate crimes and discrimination.

The most reliable way to understand the climate and culture of a potential school is to visit the campus and speak with other students of color who are enrolled in graduate and professional programs. Students should also meet the faculty in the selected program and ask about the graduate rate of students of color in their program of interest.

Students of color should visit the school’s Title IX website and the Office of Student Conduct to learn how discrimination cases are reported. Schools that provide multiple options to submit reports are ideal, as they allow students to maintain a level of anonymity and avoid reliving the situation in the presence of strangers.

Once on campus, students should seek out their school's victim-assistance services, including health services, so that they can access them if needed. They can also look into cultural diversity clubs, national social organizations, advocacy groups, counseling centers, academic advisors, employee assistance programs, affirmative action offices, and faculty and student membership programs.

Students will also benefit from enrolling in institutions that partner with external organizations that support students through discrimination and hate crimes. These include temporary housing shelters, civic and hate crime working groups, groups like the NAACP, and even law enforcement offices, churches, and other religious groups. I

Graduate School Application Process for Students of Color

Determine which entrance exams are required for your application. The most common test for master’s and doctoral programs is the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), which is similar to the SAT exam and ACT exam. Law, medical, and business graduate schools usually require LSAT, MCAT, or GMAT scores.

Your graduate school admissions portfolio will also include your personal statement, sometimes called an admission essay, where you can show the graduate school a deeper, more holistic view as to why you should attend their institution.

Graduate school applications generally require 2-3 letters of recommendation as well. You may seek letters of recommendation from anyone you worked with professionally, including college advisors, faculty, and employers. Choose references who will speak highly of you while illustrating what it’s like to work with you.

Some, though not all, graduate schools require admissions interviews. More common for doctoral programs, these meetings typically last about 30 minutes. Some graduate schools require resumes and transcripts. Read the program's admission requirements thoroughly to learn about additional requirements.

Paying for Graduate School

Financial barriers are a common challenge for students of color. With rising tuition costs, many students apply for various forms of financial assistance, including scholarships, fellowships, grants, and work-study programs. Graduate loans, the most common form of financial aid, is available for graduate students who fill out the FAFSA.

Students should expect to pay more for out-of-state tuition v. in-state. Students should also consider the cost of private vs public school. Since public graduate schools rely on government funding, tuition is often cheaper than private institutions that depend on student tuition and donations.

When seeking out a graduate school, be sure to inquire if fellowships, graduate assistantships, or teaching assistantships are offered through the program. If you are going out of state, ask if there are ways to get out-of-state tuition waived. Some institutions offer multicultural scholarships for graduate and professional students. It is important to be aware of scholarship deadlines.

It is also helpful to consider the speed at which you’d like to earn your degree. Taking part-time and evening classes may save you money, especially if you work full-time or live with family or friends while you’re studying.

Graduate School Resources for Students of Color

Ford Foundation: The Ford Foundation provides fellowships to increase ethnic diversity in U.S. colleges and universities. Students of color can apply for their Predoctoral Fellowships for Minorities, which provide three years of support for Ph.D. and Sc.D. degrees.

American Indian Education Fund: This organization offers competitive graduate scholarships to eligible American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian students who pursue master’s or doctoral degrees.

Minority Corporate Counsel Association: Founded in 1977, MCCA supports the improvement of diversity in hiring, retention, and promotion opportunities across corporate law departments and law firms. MCCA hosts fellowships, scholarships, and internships for people of color.

Thurgood Marshall College Fund: This organization offers a variety of programs, networking, professional development, and recruitment opportunities for students of color enrolled in HBCUs.

BLK + in Grad School Podcast: BLK + In Grad School is a collection of stories and resources to help women and people of color through their grad school journeys.

White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities: This initiative works with the Executive Office of the President on policies related to educational equity and economic opportunity. It also hosts an annual weeklong conference.

Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers: SHPE prepares Hispanic students and professionals for leadership roles in STEM. Their website offers career resources, including a job board featuring top STEM organizations.

APAGS Committee for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Diversity: This committee, housed at the American Psychological Association, offers podcasts, videos, mentorship opportunities, and other resources for students of color.

National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education: Founded in 1969, NAFEO is a national membership association that aims to improve the active participation of Black people in higher education.

Frequently Asked Questions About Graduate School

What should I know before applying to graduate school?

When preparing to apply to a graduate program, students of color should determine whether the school will provide an inclusive environment by visiting the school's Title IX website and Office of Student Conduct. Students should also decide how to pay for graduate school.

Graduate students can fill out the FAFSA to apply for financial aid. Most graduate schools offer financial support in the form of scholarships, research funding, and fellowships. Early on, students will need to decide whether to live on campus, live with friends or family, or find roommates to rent with. They should secure housing and make a financial plan.

What makes a strong graduate school application?

A strong graduate school application includes recommendation letters from recommenders who will say positive things about you and your experiences and an admissions essay. A grad school essay is typically 500-800 words long and guided by a memorable and arguable thesis.

Strong essays provide insight into how well students respond to criticism of their work and show an engagement with and openness toward different theories and perspectives. Students should show knowledge, skill, interest, and curiosity. Begin writing your essay early to ensure enough time to edit and proofread before submitting it.

How long are graduate programs?

Graduate programs vary in length. Master's programs generally take 2-3 years to complete, while doctoral programs take 4-6 years. Students who enroll in master's programs and stay in graduate school until they complete their doctoral programs may remain in graduate school for eight years or longer.

Graduate studies are a period of intensive academic training that centers on research and leadership development. The longer one stays in graduate school, the more focused their research becomes.

Do grades matter in master's programs?

Grades matter to admissions committees. Master's students who want to pursue a doctoral degree after they graduate should keep in mind that their master's GPA will be taken into consideration when they apply to doctoral programs. While many graduate programs require a minimum GPA of 3.0, some top-tier programs may require a higher GPA.

Your GPA is only one piece of your admission application. Admissions committees consider your entire academic record, admission essay, letters of recommendation, and other relevant experience you may have, such as publications, research, and volunteer experience.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Amber Williams

Amber Williams

Amber Williams attends Northcentral University (NCU). She is in her final year as a master's degree student majoring in marriage and family therapy. Amber currently resides in Los Angeles, California. As a graduate student, she is a recipient of several scholarships and fellowships. Her goal is to become a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in strength-based services. In the fall of 2023, Amber plans to begin the Ph.D. program at her NCU, majoring in marriage and family therapy. Ultimately, she plans to work to save lives and decrease the stigma of mental illness, both nationally and internationally