8.14.2017

Looking Ahead to Diversifying the College Presidency

By Jennifer R. Crandall, Lorelle L. Espinosa & Morgan Taylor


Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that set a clearer path for women and racial/ethnic minorities pursuing top leadership positions in this country’s public and private sectors, their underrepresentation remains a reality—dare we say a tradition—in the United States. Higher education’s C-suite is no exception. Findings from ACE’s American College President Study 2017 (ACPS) show that the profile of the typical college or university president remains largely the same since the first iteration of these data in 1986: an older white male. Progress in diversifying the college presidency has been steady but slow, and is insufficient if the individuals leading postsecondary institutions are to be representative of the student bodies they serve.

Consider this:

Women have comprised more than half of all college students since 1979, and projections predict they will make up nearly 60 percent by 2026. Yet women represented only 30 percent of college and university presidents in 2016. While their representation in the presidency has tripled since 1986, it only increased 4 percent in the five years between 2011 and 2016.


People of color also remain largely underrepresented in the presidency. In 2016, racial/ethnic minorities—defined in ACPS as presidents who identified their race as other than white or who identified their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino/a—held only 17 percent of presidencies. The representation of minority presidents has more than doubled since 1986, but parallels women presidents in that it has increased only 4 percent since 2011. On the other hand, people of color comprised approximately 42 percent of college students in 2015, and projections show that by 2026, that will increase to about 47 percent.


ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy set out to estimate when the presidency would reach gender and racial parity. Using historical ACPS data, we calculated the compounded annual growth rate to create projections of when the college presidency will reach such parity if the current growth rate remains constant. We then created additional growth scenarios to determine how a change in the growth rate would affect the projected year of reaching gender and racial parity in the presidency.

The newly released interactive ACPS data tool displays this information in addition to select findings from the American College President Study 2017 and previous iterations. Before looking ahead to exemplar programs committed to diversifying the presidency and other senior administrative positions in the field, let us first take a look what it will take for the presidency to reach gender and racial parity.

Women Presidents and Gender Parity

In an effort to diversify the presidency, ACE launched its “Moving the Needle: Advancing Women in Higher Education Leadership” initiative in 2016 with a goal of achieving 50 percent women in chief executive roles by 2030. The promising news is that if the annual growth of women in the presidency stays constant, we will reach Moving the Needle’s goal for gender parity, defined as equal representation of men and women in the presidency. Challenges nonetheless persist, not to mention that some question whether 2030 is soon enough. To meet the 2030 goal, the annual growth rate must remain constant or increase—it cannot decrease.

In addition to parity of roles, it is worth noting that other obstacles remain. For example, according to the American Association of University Women, women will likely continue to fall short in pay relative to their male counterparts. For this reason, contextual features such as culture and systems demand attention in order to eliminate inequities and barriers to entry for women who aspire to the presidency.

Minority Presidents and Racial Parity

The case of racial parity is more complex to estimate because of constant fluctuations in populations. To do so, our analysis used 2015 to 2060 population projections from the U.S. Census Bureau for three racial/ethnic groups: African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos/as. Racial parity occurs when the representation of each group in the presidency equals their representation in the overall U.S. population. Therefore, the percent representation for parity differs per year and for each racial/ethnic group.

Based on the current annual growth rate of 1.5 percent, parity for African American presidents will occur by 2050. However, if the growth rate in African Americans among the presidency slips by just 0.5 percent, parity will not occur by 2060. Asian Americans, on the other hand, will reach racial parity in all generated growth scenarios. Under the current 6 percent growth rate, parity in the presidency for Asian Americans will occur by 2036.

The case of racial parity for Latino/a presidents is especially troublesome and deserves particular mention considering this population’s steady growth in the United States and within higher education. In 2015, Latinos/as were the second largest racial/ethnic group enrolled in higher education, and projections show that by 2026, one in five college students will be Latino/a. Findings from 2016 ACPS data show that Latinos/as represented only 3.9 percent of college and university presidents. If the growth in the representation of Latinos/as in the presidency remains on the current trajectory, parity will not occur by 2060. In fact, based on our analysis, parity for Latino/a presidents only occurs with a 5 percent annual growth rate, and even then will not occur until 2057.

Looking Ahead

ACE’s Moving the Needle initiative is only one example of how the higher education field can work toward gender parity in the college presidency. Others include ACE’s Women’s Network, which aims to advance and support women in pursuit of leadership opportunities in higher education. Individual state networks are linked through the Women’s Network Executive Council, a group of senior women executives who serve as mentors to state coordinators and advisors to ACE in the functioning of the network. Similarly, ACE’s Spectrum Aspiring Leaders Program focuses on leadership and skill development, networking and strategic career mapping for mid-level administrators from diverse backgrounds, with an eye toward senior-level leadership.

These efforts work in concert with initiatives and recommendations of peer organizations actively working to increase gender and racial/ethnic diversity among college and university leadership:

  • The American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Millennium Leadership Initiative invests in the professional development of African American, Latino/a, and Asian and Pacific Islander senior-level leaders to ensure that institutional leadership reflects the growing diversity of the country.
  • The American Association of University Women has focused efforts on shedding light on the underrepresentation of women and women of color in leadership roles, as well as causes for the gender gap in leadership, and offers recommendations on how to close the this gap.
  • The Aspen Institute’s Task Force on the Future of the College Presidency examines ways in which to strengthen the college presidency in the future. Among their recommendations is the development of a more diverse presidential candidate pool through mentorship and leadership development programs, such as ACE’s Fellows Program.

As the student body and general population continue to diversify, institutions of higher education will require diverse perspectives on how best to serve an evolving demographic and situate themselves within the larger socio-political and socio-cultural landscape. This is no easy task. While meeting the needs of contemporary institutions demands cooperation across and between a constellation of efforts, it is clear that intentionality and clear pathways for women and minorities is an important component.

To this end, ACE remains dedicated to reaching gender and racial/ethnic parity in the presidency, working alongside others to further the advancement of women and people of color. We hope the information highlighted here and on the ACPS data tool open up a broader conversation around diversity in the presidency and how to best ensure the success of qualified, diverse candidates who aspire to senior leadership roles in higher education.

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