Minority Women and Higher Education

By Jeffrey Kealing
University of Southern California

In 1972, the US Congress passed the Title IX Education Amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically extending the prohibition of sexually discriminatory practices to the field of education. Since then, women of all ethnic backgrounds have made tremendous strides both in American higher education and in American society. As Anne Bryant (1995), executive director of the American Association of University Women described it, the proportion of women physicians rose from 7.6% to 16.9% from 1970 to 1990. The percentage of women lawyers and judges jumped from 4% to 23% between 1972 and 1993 and women accountants from 22% to 50%. Between 1975 and 1989, the number of women college and university presidents more than doubled from 148 to 328 -about 11% of the total presidencies.

In spite of this tangible and undeniable evidence of progress among women in general, minority women continue to under-perform in relation to white women. While 37.3% of white females aged 25 to 29 have attained at least a bachelor's degree, the comparable figures for black and Hispanic women are 18.6% and 15.8% (NCES, 1999).

Minority women face daunting structural and cultural barriers that prevent them from achieving their true potential In a national study of adult women attending two-year colleges (Feiger, 1991), 40 percent of minority women cited finding time to study and work schedules as barriers to taking a full college load. Hispanic women scored highest on mean measures of academic pressures. In addition, one-third of Asian women and 30% of Hispanic women indicated that inadequate finances kept them from pursuing their studies full time. Asian women also had low participation rates in student services.

Outside pressures have an especially negative impact on minority women's participation in professions that require a great deal of time and personal commitment, such as engineering and the physical sciences. "Compared with white and Asian students, underrepresented minority students may be more likely to exit the Science & Engineering programs because of such barriers as financial difficulties and demanding family obligations. Hispanic students in particular tend to work while studying in college not only to financially support themselves but also to assist their families. (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997)

Even with numerous barriers, minority women have gained access to higher education at significantly higher rates than minority men have. Several trends - including divorce rates, the increasingly number of single mothers and the disproportionate number of female teachers in elementary schools -- contribute to a negative outlook for minority males in terms of college enrollment (Browstein, 2000). As Thomas Mortensen, a senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, explained it: "From that time (1977) on, starting with American Indians and on to Hispanics, then whites, then Asians, females have taken over in every ethnic group."


Brownstein, Andrew (2000). "Are Male Students in Short Supply, or Is This 'Crisis' Exaggerated?" The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 3, 2000.

Bryant, Anne L. (1995). American Association of University Women, Copyright 1995 Federal Document Clearinghouse, Inc.

Feiger, Helen Tina (1991). "The American Community College Woman," Ed.D. Dissertation, University of California at Los Angeles.

NCES (2000). "The Condition of Education 2000 - Section 3: Educational Attainment"

Seymour, E. and Hewitt, N.M. (1997). Talk about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave The Sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.