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Increasing diversity is a challenge at Harvard graduate schools

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Facing a stiff legal challenge to their admissions practices, Harvard officials have made an insistent case that they put a premium on assembling a racially diverse class of students for the undergraduate college, that, in fact, it is of utmost importance.

That sense of urgency means that minorities now make up slightly more of the student body than white students. But achieving diversity at Harvard’s 10 prestigious graduate schools has proven to be far more challenging.

Notwithstanding Harvard’s reputation and allure, few of its graduate schools enroll minority students from the United States at the same rate as the undergraduate college, even as foreign-born students flood those campuses.


At the design school, dental school, government school, and graduate school of arts and sciences, the percentage of African-American students doesn’t crack 5 percent, compared to 8.5 percent at the undergraduate level.

At six graduate schools, including the law school and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Hispanic enrollment is below 6 percent, compared to 11 percent of undergraduates.

At Harvard’s much-vaunted business school and the Kennedy School of Government, the share of black or Hispanic students has either barely budged or declined over the past decade. In the business school last fall, 5 percent of students were black — the same as in 2008. Hispanic students, who were 6 percent of Kennedy School students in 2008, were down to 4 percent last fall. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who identified as white increased during that time.

Harvard is not an outlier. Across the country, graduate schools provide students with advanced training that can often lead to higher earnings, but minority enrollment remains stubbornly low. Cost, fewer opportunities for financial aid, a lack of diversity among faculty, and curriculum are among the reasons experts say many minority groups remain underrepresented on these campuses.

“We still have a very long way to go,” said Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, a trade group that represents graduate deans.


As they have throughout the recent federal trial over whether Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants, school officials insist diversity is crucial to the university’s educational mission, including at the graduate schools.

“Bringing together students from different academic, professional, and life experiences is central to the mission of graduate education at Harvard,” said university spokesman Jonathan Swain. “A learning and research community that is diverse on multiple dimensions enriches the education experience for all students.”

Harvard’s top administrators declined to comment on whether the graduate schools should do more to recruit and admit underrepresented minorities. Admissions priorities and strategies, Swain said, are left to the individual schools.

Several Harvard graduate schools said they look at diversity broadly, including race, gender, economic status, and international origin. Foreign students make up a far greater share of the student body at the graduate schools than at the undergraduate college. While foreign students account for about 12 percent of undergraduates, they make up about half the student population at the Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and are about a third of all students at three other graduate schools.

Still, some of Harvard’s graduate schools acknowledge that more must be done to expand diversity among students from the United States.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” said Douglas Elmendorf, who has been dean of the Kennedy School since 2016. “I don’t think there’s a single way to address these challenges. . . . Moving these numbers can be difficult. We have to keep at it.”


Harvard officials contend that graduate school admission officers necessarily draw from a smaller, more specialized applicant pool, making comparisons to undergraduate admissions difficult. They say the high price of graduate schools, with tuition ranging from $29,000 to $73,440 annually, can be a deterrent for minority and low-income students. Harvard does offer many students earning master’s degrees partial financial aid, but full scholarships for tuition and fees are rare, and students are expected to take out loans to attend.

Donors are eager to expand access and affordability for undergraduate education, but graduate education is still seen as optional, said Maritza Hernández, associate dean of enrollment and student services at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“We can’t cover 100 percent of need, but we try to spread what we have among as many students as we can,” said Hernandez. The university’s education school is considered among the most diverse on campus, with African-Americans making up 10 percent of its students, an even larger share than enrolled in the undergraduate student body.

Even for Harvard, recruiting graduate students can be surprisingly difficult, Hernandez said. Many are older, settled in life, and sometimes reluctant to move to the Boston area from across the country for a master’s or doctoral degree, she said. The results have been disheartening to some students and have sparked protests and rallies at Harvard in recent years.

“The number of students of color at the graduate school is abysmal,” said Ivy Yan, 25, a second-year law school student, who also earned a bachelor’s degree at Harvard.


Harvard’s graduate schools are among the premier master’s and doctoral degree programs in the country, training future physicians, politicians, CEOs, academics, scientific researchers, and theologians. Right now, Yan said, those schools don’t reflect the diversity of the country as a whole.

At the law school, nearly 10 percent of students are Asian-American, slightly more than 6 percent are black, and about 5 percent are Hispanic.

Officials from several of Harvard’s graduate schools said they are expanding recruitment and adopting new approaches. But the efforts vary.

Some schools are growing programs that introduce prospective minority students to Harvard by bringing them to campus events. Many have bolstered relationships with tribal colleges and historically black institutions. Some are trying to get on the radar of high school students who might one day consider an advanced degree, and reaching out to nonprofits that work with low-income, first-generation students.

Harvard Business School is trying to incorporate more black business leaders and black-led businesses in the case studies professors use and it plans to hire its first chief diversity officer. The Kennedy School last year hired an associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

“We want to do better on achieving diversity than we have done before,” said Elmendorf, the Kennedy School dean.

Some of the fastest-growing jobs require master’s degrees for even entry-level work, and if minority students aren’t earning advanced degrees, they will be left behind by the transforming economy, said Ortega, the president of the graduate schools group.


Ortega sees reason for some optimism. Hispanic student enrollment in graduate schools has been increasing by about 6 percent annually for the past decade, according to an annual survey by the council.

Growth of African-American students, however, is expanding at a much slower annual rate of 1.3 percent, compared to 2.7 percent for Asian-Americans, according to the report. Native American enrollment in graduate schools has been shrinking by 3 percent a year.

“Progress is unevenly distributed,” Ortega said. “There’s a real need in all communities for leaders with the skill sets that graduate education empowers.”

Several Harvard minority students said they are seeing some changes, whether it’s a more inclusive curriculum that incorporates discussions of race and equity, or an acknowledgment that some schools may need more faculty of color.

But several said Harvard, with its $39 billion endowment, must do more to help graduate students with financial aid and provide more support to help students succeed when they get to campus.

For those on campus, being among a handful of minority voices can be isolating.

Raquel Sofia Sandoval, 24, a second-year student at Harvard Medical School, said that in one introductory class she was the only Latina and much of the work had to be done in teams. Her teammates often ignored her comments or kept talking over her, Sandoval said, making her feel like an outsider and forcing her to consider whether she belonged at the university.

“When you’re on the receiving end, it really makes you question: What have I done?” said Sandoval, whose family is originally from Colombia and now lives in Houston.

After talking to other minority students, she realized it wasn’t unique to her. Sandoval worked with medical school faculty to develop more curriculum offerings that incorporate readings and discussions about race and micro-aggressions into the team work, so minority students could be more certain to have a voice.

“There’s so much room for change,” Sandoval said. “We’re training the physicians of tomorrow, and we’re thinking about the populations these physicians will serve. We need to think about what kind of students we should be admitting.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@