Faculty diversity and student success go hand in hand for Black women. Research shows how having mentors in graduate school with whom students can identify can significantly impact students’ sense of belonging, persistence, and success in their program. And while some college and university leaders recognize the need to diversify their faculties, Black students, especially Black women, still struggle to find faculty role models with whom they can relate. Black women face structural constraints in academic settings that lead them to feel like they must change their behaviors, attitudes, or overall selves to assimilate the broader societal norms of race and class that are embedded within many institutions. This accommodation often forces Black women to ignore their unique cultural identities and strengths.

Recurring themes are evident in studies of Black students’ experiences in higher education, including stereotype threat — the fear of being judged based on negative group stereotypes — and feelings of loneliness, disvalue, and disrespect, all of which can lead students to feel like they don’t belong in these spaces. This negative stereotyping often starts in grade school. Black and Latino students, and students from low-income backgrounds not only attend schools that receive fewer resources, but are not adequately represented in school curricula and are often denied access to AP and STEM courses. Black women, in particular, face unique forms of oppression on account of their race and gender. Although Black women earn about 69% of associate’s degrees, 65% of bachelor’s degrees, 70% of master’s degrees, and over 67% of doctoral degrees, they are still treated as outsiders in the White, male-dominated world of academia.

I recently interviewed five Black women for a research study about Black women’s experiences in doctoral programs. The study highlights the voices of actual graduate students, so leaders can gain a genuine understanding of the factors that impact their postsecondary journey. Interviewees discussed how their identities influenced their program experiences. Two common themes that emerged were the students’ struggles to find female faculty of color to be their mentors and students’ feelings of isolation and mistrust toward the higher education system.

The two themes are clearly connected. The lack of mentors and role models who look like them makes many Black women feel like outsiders in their doctoral programs (and sadly, many Black female faculty face the same problems as their Black female students). In addition to I know from personal experience and from conversations with the study participants that advisers and mentors play an outsized role in doctoral students’ success and can provide crucial guidance and support when the going gets tough. The Black female graduate students I interviewed noted that having a program adviser or mentor who is also a Black woman made their overall experience better. As one participant explained, “I tend to gravitate toward the Black professors, the Black women, and I think that’s what’s carried me through the program.” The doctoral students said the encouragement they received from Black female faculty members made them feel more seen, understood, and more capable in their studies. They also noted that Black female faculty members understood what they were going through and were thus better positioned to guide them and foster a sense of community. Yet despite being a critical component of student success, faculty of color — especially female Black faculty — are scarce. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) database, a paltry 6% of full-time faculty were Black in 2021, and just 4% were Black women.

Participants were also candid about the ways that graduate programs and higher education, in general, are failing them. It was clear from their stories despite the inroads that Black women have made in higher education, little has changed; racism, and sexism are still prevalent in academia. The Black women I interviewed all said they had experienced negative and traumatic situations while in graduate school — some noted that some classmates had treated them like tokens on occasion and questioned how they had been accepted into their doctoral program. Despite such affronts, these Black women persisted, though one participant said, “There’s so many times that I think that I could have used the situation as a sign that this just wasn’t something for me, because the reality is that these programs are not built for us, these programs are not equipped for our brilliance, for our intellect, for our experience, for the multiplicity of our identities, and ironically, they desperately need us.”

While some colleges and universities may pay lip service to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), they often fall short when it comes to serving the needs of students of color, the participants said. Research shows that students who are exposed to diverse perspectives have higher levels of empathy, cultural awareness, and political participation and better critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. But the failure of higher education institutions to diversify their faculty and student bodies and make space for the plurality of students and their identities is hurting Black women and students of color generally, the study suggests, and the demise of affirmative action and recent attacks on DEI initiatives and honest teaching aren’t helping matters. Politicians, policymakers, and college leaders should be dismantling racism in higher education, not perpetuating it.

Higher education institutions must do more to support graduate students of color. Here are three actions state policymakers and higher education leaders can take to boost faculty diversity and make sure all students have a positive experience in college:

  1. Prioritize representation. In a recent EdTrust report, “Faculty Diversity and Student Success Go Hand in Hand, So Why Are University Faculties So White,” more than half (57%) of institutions earned failing grades for Black faculty diversity, and another 13% received a D grade. Multiple factors can deter graduate students of color from becoming faculty members and staying in academia, including a negative racial campus climate and faculty workload inequities. Therefore, higher education leaders and advocates should adopt policies and goals that increase access, persistence, and retention of diverse faculty. Faculty diversity benefits everyone and is vital to student success, so institutions must critically examine their hiring and retention practices, improve campus climates, and make resources available to faculty of color, so they can build their skills and find community.
  2. Include faculty diversity in strategic plans. By prioritizing funding for faculty diversity initiatives, setting goals and benchmarks, and collaborating with institutional leaders, state leaders can institutionalize these efforts through strategic plans, state appropriations, and other legislative processes. Leaders should likewise ensure that their actions align with their stated missions and strategic goals for increasing and supporting diverse faculty. States should also prioritize funding for institutions that serve the most students of color — such as HBCUs, HSIs, and other minority-serving institutions with a designated mission, which often enroll and graduate more Black and Latino students who go on to graduate school and faculty positions.
  3. Increase funding for research opportunities. Institutions can invest more in recruiting underrepresented students for doctoral/terminal degree programs and prioritize grant applications for federal funding of undergraduate and graduate research opportunities. Campus-specific programs like the McNair Scholars Program, Graduate Research Fellowship Programs, and Title III – B grant opportunities support both college completion and provide the necessary academic rigor to help aspiring academics and researchers transition into faculty careers.

These actions are key because when graduate students of color, particularly Black women, have faculty and mentors who look like them, they feel more supported and are more likely to stay the course and finish their graduate or doctoral degrees.