Navigating a Changing Landscape: The Future of Higher Ed in a Diverse America


Understand how today’s new reality impacts higher education

Derrick Johnson and Rachel Pluviose on stage at URMIA's 2023 Annual Conference


Derrick Johnson of the NAACP and Rachel Pluviose of Johns Hopkins University during a keynote session at the 2023 URMIA Annual Conference.

A Look at Demographic Shifts and a New Direction Related to Affirmative Action

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Rachel Pluviose, senior director of risk management and insurance at Johns Hopkins University and co-chair of URMIA’s Annual Conference Committee, had a conversation about the implications of demographic shifts and the Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action for higher education in the United States as part of one of the conference’s general sessions. The conversation revolved around the increasing diversity in the younger population, the potential challenges colleges and universities may face, and the importance of adapting to this new reality. Read on for more insights from the session.

Demographic Transformations on the Horizon

The conversation started by addressing the seismic demographic shifts taking place in the United States. Johnson highlighted the fact that numerous states are witnessing a surge in the number of young people from Black and Brown communities. He emphasized that this shift is irreversible and will only continue, which poses questions for the higher education landscape.

As Johnson pointed out, "There are multiple states where the population of 18 years and younger are majority young people of color." This demographic change is fundamentally altering the composition of future college students and challenging institutions to adapt to these shifting demographics.

The Supreme Court's Role in Affirmative Action

Johnson contextualized this discussion by referencing a Supreme Court decision that struck down affirmative action, a policy aimed at rectifying historical injustices and promoting diversity in higher education. This decision has left colleges and universities grappling with how to ensure a diverse student body while adhering to legal restrictions on affirmative action.

Johnson expressed his disappointment with this ruling, stating, "I find the Supreme Court decision unfortunate because schools are going to have to justify student enrollment that is ever growing more diverse, which really will not make any sense." He pointed out the illogical contradiction between the changing demographics and the legal restrictions placed on schools.

The Challenge for Higher Education Institutions

The conversation then delved into the practical challenges that higher education institutions are likely to face in the coming years. Johnson argued that schools, particularly those outside the Ivy League and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), will have to work diligently to maintain compliance with the Supreme Court's decision while serving a student body that reflects the diversity of the 21st century, not the 1950s.

He explained, "It makes no logical sense. The business model of a college and university right now is one of diversity; one of outreaching to communities that they have not traditionally reached out to." This shift will require institutions to reimagine their business models and approaches to reaching a more diverse and inclusive customer base.

Redefining the Business Case

Johnson emphasized the need for a paradigm shift in the way higher education institutions view their "customer base." He suggested that this shift should be rooted in a business case rather than solely focusing on race. The key question institutions need to answer is, "How do we ensure we make the right business case in our outreach to young people?"

Furthermore, he argued that it is essential to invest in the pipeline to ensure that all students, regardless of their background or the zip code they were born in, have access to quality education and opportunities. Johnson asserted that the current system, where a person's zip code can significantly impact their life outcomes, is unacceptable in a nation that claims to champion democracy and equal opportunity.

The Importance of Inclusivity and Representation

To address these challenges, Johnson stressed the importance of inclusivity and representation within higher education institutions. He encouraged institutions to reflect their customer base in their decision-making processes and boardrooms. He cited an example of a company that repeatedly faced racial issues due to decisions made by a non-representative leadership team.

The remedy, Johnson proposed, is to have a decision-making table that reflects the diverse communities institutions aim to serve. This diverse representation can help mitigate risks, prevent harm, and lead to more inclusive and equitable decision-making.

Shifting the Paradigm of 'Otherism'

The conference conversation also touched on the concept of "otherism," where individuals who do not conform to the dominant culture are marginalized and excluded. Johnson described how otherism has affected various communities throughout history and emphasized the importance of overcoming it. He argued that it is unsustainable to continually marginalize and demonize those who do not conform to the dominant culture.

Preparing for a Diverse Future

In conclusion, the conversation highlighted that higher education institutions must evolve to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse future. This evolution should encompass changes in recruitment, decision-making, and the way colleges and universities approach their customer base. Ultimately, by embracing diversity and ensuring equal opportunities, institutions can better prepare students for a world where diversity is not just a goal but a reality.


By URMIA Staff

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