Here's a Push to Make the Ivory Tower a Little Less White

Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population and are making impacts on aspects of American life, including education. Studies have shown that the number of Hispanics earning degrees from U.S. colleges and universities more than doubled between 1990 and 2010. However, this population is highly underrepresented among students pursuing Ph.D.s, as well as among college and university faculty.

The Andrew Mellon Foundation, one of the biggest funders of higher education in the U.S., especially for programs related to the humanities, recently committed more than $5 million over five years to a program designed to increase the number of Hispanic Ph.D.s. Mellon awarded the grant to the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI) to launch a new program called Pathways to the Professorate.

I'll say more about this effort in a moment, but first let's consider the the multifaceted philanthropic push for diversity in higher education. Amid an intensifying conversation about racial equity and inequality, a wide range of funders have backed different approaches to making our nation's campuses look like America's population writ large. Much of this funding has focused on getting more kids of color to attend collegeand, as importantly, to complete their degrees. But there's also growing attention to ensuring that more students of color stick around universities to get advanced degrees like Ph.D.s. 

We've reported on several such efforts, and there's no question that the biggest money is flowing to expand the ranks of students of color getting advanced degrees in the STEM disciplines. Quite a bit of that funding is coming from corporate donors, who are attuned both to meeting future skilled labor needs and living up to their pledges on diversity. Long-time science funders like Sloan are another key source. 

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What we haven't seen, though, is attention to diversifying the ranks of graduate students in the humanities and social sciences. Which is why it's important to highlight Mellon's ongoing quest to increase diversity in the upper echelons of academia. 

Related: How is Mellon Working to Boost Minority Representation Across Academia?

Under this new program, CMSI will partner with eight colleges and universities to increase the number of Hispanics who earn a Ph.D. in the humanities and become college and university faculty. Participating universities, in addition to Penn, include Northwestern and Florida International. Each participating school will select 10 undergraduates who will receive assistance in preparing for the GRE and writing personal statements. They also will receive stipends and other forms of academic support.

In a higher education environment in which STEM is all the rage, Mellon remains committed to the idea that art, literature, and other subjects in the humanities still have an important place in our society. It is through the humanities that students learn to think critically and engage with the multicultural world around them.

Further, the new Mellon-funded program focuses on an underrepresented group in advanced scholarship. In many Ph.D. programs, white students outnumber Hispanics by seven to one. Hispanics comprise less than 10 percent of faculty at many colleges and universities. 

It's worth closing with the obvious point that the job market for academics is not great these days, and this is especially true in the humanities. That's an obstacle to getting more young people of color—or any young people—to focus their career ambitions in this area. An added challenge, here, is that students of color, often first generation college students, often face family expectations to pursue practical careers that offer a path to financial security. Pursuing a Ph.D. in, say, comparative literature may not go over so well with mom and dad. In that sense, Mellon is taking on a much tougher job than the funders focusing on diversifying the STEM field, where career opportunities are more apparent.