Higher education is one of the major forces ensuring access to better jobs and opportunities in the modern world. With the growth of for-profit college and public schools raising tuition for master’s programs, the demographics and access to high education shifts. Critical Race Theory (CRT) can be utilized to evaluate the policies, educational institutions, practices of universities, and history that impacts the ability of racially diverse students to pursue a master’s degree. The national Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) will be evaluated along with a brief analysis of the policies and practices of University of Denver as a case study. To understand the impacts of HEOA on students nationally, the demographics, cultural, economic, and political impacts of students pursuing a master’s degree will be analyzed. CRT will be applied to HEOA and to who is actually participating in achieving and providing higher education in the U.S.

Higher Education Opportunity Act and University of Denver Policies

A crucial policy affecting higher education and diversity is The Higher Education Opportunity Act (Public Law 110-315) enacted on August 14, 2008, which reauthorizes the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (the HEA) (Sampson, 2008).[1]While HEOA provides a step in the right direction it is sorely lacking in its efforts of instituting diversity and inclusion in higher education. The policy changes law but it does not require institutions to comply to its provisions regarding higher education and diversity. Additionally, the policy states

“Affected parties are responsible for taking the steps necessary to comply by the effective dates established by the HEOA, unless the HEOA specifies that regulations are necessary to implement certain provisions or, if so indicated by the Department, operational steps must be taken by the Department before parties may comply. Because this will require program participants to implement a large number of new provisions before receiving guidance from the Department, during subsequent reviews of compliance with the HEOA, we will take into account any written guidance that had been provided by the Department during the period under review or, as applicable, the absence of such guidance” (Sampson, 2008).

This provision of the HEOA is leaving a room for higher education institutions to continue the status quo as the official policy states it is merely providing guidance of how institutions should engage in inclusive practice instead of providing concrete actionable steps to ensure institutionalization of diversity. There are certain programs that receive funding and are being implemented;

“While the HEOA authorizes numerous new programs, only the following three are funded at this time: (1) Promoting Postbaccalaureate Opportunities for Hispanic Americans; (2) Master’s Degree Programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities; and (3) Master’s Degree Programs at Predominantly Black Institutions. The other new programs cannot be implemented until funding is provided” (Sampson, 2008).[2]

The HEOA policy leaves much to be desired as it is only providing three actionable programs for diversity. The dependence of government funding on more programs is risky and allows interference of political processes hindering the long-term changes HEOA is capable of. The policy sounds proficient in writing when the entire report is analyzed, however, there is a lack of adequate regulations ensuring the policy is adopted by universities nationally. HEOA accepts written statements by universities declaring they are promoting diversity and engaging inclusivity in higher education. Written reports render diversity and inclusivity in higher education as mere words instead of forces of change. Many colleges have broad diversity statements, but lack implementation of those statements leaving inclusion in the hands of chance rather than action.

The University of Denver (DU) provides an insightful case study of the inability of HEOA to change status quo. The DU institution has no official diversity and inclusion policy pertaining to its master’s programs, there is only a single statement provided by the Chancellor that addresses diversity within the institution;

 “The University of Denver is its people—all its people. We aim to attract bright and motivated students and give them every opportunity to thrive. We rely on engaged faculty who are passionate about their teaching and their scholarship. We depend on talented staff to support the operation and mission of the University” (Diversity and Inclusive Excellence, n.d.).

This is clearly a statement intentionally left broad and vague enough to not provide concrete change. The DU stance on diversity does not state it will alter the structural processes or institutional shortcoming to increase diversity, the lack of promise to implement change is very telling of the intentions of those who create policies and statements relating to diversity.

In 2016, due to President Obama’s political promises towards higher education, HEOA related report was released by the Department of Education providing detailed guidelines and a roadmap towards concrete steps ensuring diversity and inclusion known as “Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education.” The DU Office of Diversity and Inclusivity (ODI) assumed certain roles that directly tie back to the HEOA roadmap such as;

“… ODI works to offer resources, events, and professional guidance in order to: Advocate for the promotion of diversity and inclusive excellence at DU; Shape university policies, practices, and programs; and Promote access and success of historically marginalized communities through the fostering of diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus climate (University of Denver).

The HEOA roadmap is a good starting point providing detailed steps and resources universities can enact towards diversity but the lack of any regulations on universities and the ability of universities to not adopt the roadmap makes it clear that institutions have all the power on who they enroll and how those students are chosen.

National and DU policies leave many questions unanswered. The most comprehensive way to understand if any changes have resulted since these policies is by understanding who is represented in higher education currently.

Demographics and Cultural, Economic, and Political Variables of Students Accessing Master’s Degrees

There are major differences in demographics of students enrolled in master’s programs and Faculty members tenured for teaching master’s programs nationally. The prices of higher education further scrutinize who has access to pursue a master’s degree. Additionally, the major objective of a master’s degree is access to better employment opportunities post-graduation yet, people of color in the U.S. with master’s degrees are paid less than their white counterparts. Education attainment and access is also influenced by political processes, representation, and who has access to power.

In terms of demographics, national statistics for higher education are very unequal. “Among first-time U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduate students in the Fall of 2018, about 24.1% were underrepresented minorities, including American Indian/Alaska Native (0.5%), Black/African American (11.8%), Native Hawaiian/ Other Pacific Islander (0.2%), and Latinx (11.6%) (Okahana, Zhou, 2019).[3]This still leaves 75.9% of higher education degrees to Caucasian students. An interesting change in demographics has been women who represent a majority in higher education nationally. “In Fall 2018, more than half of first-time graduate students both at the master’s degree and certificate level (59.7%) and at the doctoral level (54.4%) were women (Espinosa, et. al., 2019).[4]However, “the widest gap [by gender], by far, occurred for Black students, followed by students of more than one race, Caucasian, Hispanic, and American Indian or Alaska Native students (Espinosa, et. al., 2019).”

Another important factor is cost of education which severely limits access to most minorities due to issues of debt and socioeconomic status. It is crucial to note socioeconomic status of people of color (especially African and Native Americans) is influenced by a longstanding history of discrimination deeply embedded into the institutional, political, and cultural actions of the United States.[5] According to Sociological Laura Perry, a student’s socioeconomic status is the third strongest influence educational outcomes of the United States and the sixth influencer of equity in schools.[6]The access to well-funded and proficient schools is not previewed to many segments of people of color due to the lack of government services provided in racially diverse neighborhoods. Students of color are unable to access higher education due to the increasing prices of for-profit institutions who hold most of the connections and quality of education allowing students to get better jobs post-graduation. At the graduate level, a higher share of African Americans, American Indian or Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander are enrolled in for-profit institutions.

“Patterns of borrowing among African American graduate students are deeply concerning, especially among those at the nation’s for-profit colleges, which enrolled approximately 50 percent of Black doctoral students in 2016. The vast majority (95.2 percent) of Black doctoral recipients who attended these schools borrowed an average amount of $128,359 for graduate study.” (Espinosa, et. al., 2019).

Graduate students who attend for-profit institutions face a much higher level of debt than public and private not for profit institutions.[7]The failure to repay this debt has heavy repercussions including fines and imprisonment. Additionally, people of color overwhelmingly pursuing for-profit universities points to a gap in public universities. The HEOA discusses providing more funding for Pell grants awarded to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and students of color but the lack of diversity in enrollment shows who is receiving those Pell grants and how few are being awarded.

The debt dilemma poses even more restrictions when post-graduate employment is concerned. Employment with a master’s degree has overwhelmingly shown an increase in pay and access to opportunities. People of color experience pay rates post-graduation differently than their Caucasians counterparts;

“African Americans ages 25 to 34 earned 15 percent less and had an unemployment rate two-thirds higher than the typical bachelor’s degree holder of similar age. American Indian or Alaska Native adults earned substantially less than adults with comparable levels of educational attainment. Within every level of postsecondary attainment, the median annual earnings of American Indian or Alaska Native adults were between 16.2 percent and 28.5 percent less than the national median in 2016” (Espinosa, et. al., 2019).

The socioeconomic status of the family’s students come from affects educational attainment. Most people of color are in low- or middle-income households and the students from these households are forced to choose between accruing debt to pursue a degree that does not guarantee employment or becoming a part of the job market which promises them no promotion or pay raise. “Graduates who hailed from households with incomes of at least $116,000—the top quarter—represented more than half of all the degrees awarded in 2014 among 24-year-olds. Students from households that earned less than $35,000—the lowest quarter—represented just 10 percent of all the degrees awarded” (Zinshteyn, 2016).[8]Socioeconomic status represents a major hurdle for people of color and those in lower income households from achieving a master’s degree. The government and higher education institutions can bridge this gap in education attainment but grants and scholarships are largely merit based in higher education versus needs based meaning many people of color are not able to access those opportunities. There are studies conducted that point to a bias against students of color when awarding merit based aid. Source.

The HEOA provides policy guidelines for ensuring diversity in faculty and staff members but this does not translate into action nationally. “In 2016, people of color held only 21.1 percent of full-time faculty positions, and faculty of color were less likely than white faculty to hold full professorships” (Espinosa, et. al., 2019). The lack of diversity in professors poses many challenges in the classroom where people of color face microaggressions and exclusion from peers due to the professors’ inability to address the curriculum from a comprehensive and diverse perspective.

The University of Denver states they have altered faculty hiring guidelines to be more conducive to hiring diverse faculty members, but the policies have not produced results.[9]In 2014, 70% of tenured or tenure track professors at DU were white with 0.065% Asian, 0.06% Hispanic or Latino, 0.059% African (13 out of 473), and 0.09% unknown (Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity, n.d.). With majority of tenured faculty members being Caucasian, students do not learn from a diverse perspective unless they actively go to seek it out. This is a severely troubling fact of underrepresentation because students can graduate without learning how to be inclusive and tolerant which exacerbates the social and political processes making higher education more difficult for students of color. Meanwhile the point of higher education is to show students how to enter the workforce with new ideas and developed skills sets that could be utilized to address lack of diversity.

Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory can expose a lot about the HEOA and the state of higher education as it currently stands. The definition of CRT according to Britannica Encyclopedia, “is the view that race, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is socially constructed and that race, as a socially constructed concept, functions as a means to maintain the interests of the white population that constructed it (Curry, 2018).[10]Gillborn (2005), explains how CRT exposes the fundamental gaps in most policies. How CRT can explain higher education occurs via three steps;

“First, the question of priorities: who or what is driving education policy? Second, the question of beneficiaries: who wins and who loses as a result of education policy priorities? And finally, the question of outcomes: what are the effects of policy?” (Gillborn, 2005).

First, the priorities of higher education are clear. Public and not for profit institutions do not provide enough resources in terms of grants and scholarships for students of color to bridge the gap between opportunities available to pursue higher education. Private universities are businesses and their objectives are monetary. Introducing an organization that provides education with the intentions of producing a profit is a flawed system. Private universities have no regulations about who they enroll so they can raise tuition and narrow access to education without repercussions. Policies like HEOA produced to address this fall short because they are merely promoting diversity via words instead of practical regulations or achievable goals that lead to structural and institutional changes to make higher education more diverse. As previously discussed, even with a higher education degree, people of color get paid less and have less access to the same jobs that Caucasians with that degree have access to. Thus, the inability of more people of color to pursue higher education means they are less represented in politics since political leadership often requires higher education degrees from accredited private universities. A lack of political representation makes it so white people in power remain in control of who gets to eventually hold that power in the future.

The second step Gillborn discusses is who benefits? As detailed previously, the demographics of higher education both in terms of students, and faculty members are skewed towards majority Caucasians. HEOA and other policies are minuscule compared to the many policies each separate higher education university has and the National Education Department policies that govern those institutions. The fact that there is a separate HEOA created just to address diversity issues and it still is not lawfully implemented speaks volumes about the beneficiaries of education policy being largely rich Caucasians. There is a significant issue of funding of HEOA that is interrupted by political processes. The current president and administration have cut funding to education. The current administration is not one to support initiatives like HEOA by contributing government funding towards the policy. These political processes are important to understand because they work in waves. The Obama administration created the HEOA toolkit, advocated to implement diversity policies in universities, and increased funding to the program. The Trump administration has done the opposite by taking money away from diversity and education initiatives. This turbulent nature of the political environment allows universities that do not have diversity policies or practice diversity institutionally to continue doing so and slow the clock of change even more, allowing exclusive higher education attainment to continue. If HEOA was a law that was implemented and regulated, this issue would not arise. The mere fact of HEOA being voluntary exposes that the government is not working hard enough to implement structural changes promoting opportunities for people of color.

Third, the effects of HEOA and DU’s inclusion statement are slow and inadequate changes that do not intentionally work towards diversity or provide access to higher education to people of color. Institutions continue to provide mere statements about inclusivity without working to enact concrete steps to get to a truly inclusive organization. Students or color face issues of financial access, socioeconomic burdens, lack of opportunities, lack of scholarships, and overall lack of access to higher education keeping them trapped in a certain socioeconomic level. Once they are enrolled in higher education, they face micro-aggressions, a negative, racially charged environment, lack of representation, feelings of exclusion, and many other issues that are not even discussed in this paper. Higher education and the government can and must work harder to ensure institutional change towards diversity


            I learned just how small the fraction was in terms of students of color who enroll in higher education. As a female, immigrant, student of color, I have always been conscious of the fact that I am privileged because I am able to attend a master’s program and have been very thankful of my parents who have supported me to get to this position. This essay highlighted these feelings and made them more concrete. Learning and working in the field of international studies and development, I have always thought about government processes from a racial lens along with the other theories presented to me in school. However, writing this essay made me realize just how intricate the processes really are because beyond the HEOA and DU policies discussed there are cultural issues of microaggressions and feelings of exclusion, socioeconomic issues making it hard for students or color to finish Bachelor’s programs, a deep history of oppression keeping education away from people or color and people from low income households, and many other variables that I could not even cover in this essay. It is insightful for all students to utilize CRT to understand their own positions of power and privilege so that when they enter the workforce they can work to address policies creating or perpetuating discrimination instead of becoming another part of the overall system allowing the status quo of exclusion and racism to prevail.


Curry, T. (2018, December 31). Critical race theory. Retrieved from

David Gillborn (2005) Education policy as an act of white supremacy: whiteness, critical race theory and education reform, Journal of Education Policy, 20:4, 485-505, DOI: 10.1080/02680930500132346

Diversity and Inclusive Excellence. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Espinosa, Lorelle L., Jonathan M. Turk, Morgan Taylor, and Hollie M. Chessman. 2019. Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Status Report. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Okahana, H., & Zhou, E. (2019). Graduate enrollment and degrees: 2008 to 2018. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

Perry, Laura (April 2009). “Characteristics of Equitable Systems of Education: A Cross-National Analysis”. European Education. 41 (1): 79–100. doi:10.2753/EUE1056-4934410104. ISSN 1056-4934.

Robinson, Randall (2000). The debt: What America owes to Blacks. Dutton Books.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development and Office of the Under Secretary, Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education, Washington, D.C., 2016.

U.S. G.P.O. Higher Education Opportunity Act: conference report (to accompany H.R. 4137), Higher Education Opportunity Act: conference report (to accompany H.R. 4137) (2008). Washington.

Zinshteyn, M. (2016, April 29). The Stubborn Wealth Gap in Who Earns a College Degree. Retrieved from

[1]The Higher Education Opportunity Act Public Law 110-315, CITE

[2]U.S. G.P.O. Higher Education Opportunity Act: conference report (to accompany H.R. 4137), Higher Education Opportunity Act: conference report (to accompany H.R. 4137) (2008). Washington.

[5]“No nation can enslave a race of people for hundreds of years, set them free bedraggled and penniless, pit them, without assistance in a hostile environment, against privileged victimizers, and then reasonably expect the gap between the heirs of the two groups to narrow. Lines, begun parallel and left alone, can never touch.” Randall Robinson states.[43] Robinson, Randall (2000). The debt: What America owes to Blacks. Dutton Books.

[7]Among graduates of for-profit institutions, 74.4 percent of 2016 master’s degree recipients who borrowed accrued an average debt of $48,829, and the 87.9 percent of 2016 doctoral degree recipients who borrowed accrued an average debt of $120,110. These debt levels were higher than those of students who completed graduate degrees at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions (Espinosa, et. al., 2019).

[9]After several years in the making, the faculty hiring guidelines taskforce produced a set of revised faculty hiring guidelines that was vetted by the Deans, CDEAC, ADC, and selected members from the faculty senate. These revised guidelines include several new requirements that are nationally known as best practices for recruiting and hiring a diverse and talented faculty group (Office of Diversity and Inclusion, n.d.).