Systemic Racism: Structural Inequality in Higher Education

By The Rev. Ken Howard

Last week’s Episcopal Pulse micro-survey asked a simple YES/NO question: 

Does your congregation have a campus ministry?

The results were in some ways surprising and in other ways not so much. Take a look at this chart of the results: 

A stunning 84% of respondents answered NO, their congregation did not have a campus ministry. Only 15% said YES

Assuming these numbers accurately represent the attitudes of Episcopalians as a whole…

When we think about campus ministry, we have had to ask whether local congregations aren’t leaving too many cards on the the table. The responses seem to validate that hunch.

Combining the low numbers above with the fact that most congregations and their dioceses that do have campus ministries focus their resources primarily on outreach to 4-year universities, while frequently ignoring 2-year community colleges, it becomes clear how much we are missing the boat.

Yes, universities have a more prestigious feel to them than community colleges. However, the majority of university students are residential and most do not live the same town as their school and will leave the area when they graduate. Conversely, since community colleges are closer to home, most of their students actually do live in the same town, and are more likely to return to the area after graduation. 

There are more than a thousand local community colleges, most serving multiple local municipalities. Most have several congregations within a 15-minute drive, which not only makes it more feasible to mount campus ministries there but also less costly, especially if several congregations collaborate in the effort. It’s more likely the mostly-local students will engage with those congregations.

But here’s the kicker: There are structural racial/ethnic inequalities built into our two-tiered undergraduate higher education system. 2-year community colleges tend to be majority minority, while 4-year institutions tend to be predominately white. And in competitive enrollment 4-year universities as much a 75% of the student body is white. The numbers for graduation show even greater disparities based on race and ethnicity. 

Dig a little deeper and we find some of the reasons for these disparities. For example, in 4-year institutions, both faculty and staff are disproportionately White, with an even greater disparity in 4-year competitive-enrollment universities. Meanwhile, community colleges and universities with non-competitive enrollment tend to be chronically underfunded.

The numbers are improving… somewhat. But based on the indicators being measured, estimates of how long it will take to reach the point at which they match the actual diversity of the U.S. population range from decades to centuries.

So it would seem that in many different ways, avoiding campus ministry to community colleges means that too many local congregations are letting potentially-fertile, local missional soil lay fallow… and would be well-advised to tend to them in Christ’s name.

Sources: Helen Vlasova (Jun. 23, 2022). “Community College Statistics – 2022,” on; Imed Bouchrika (Oct. 13, 2022). “U.S. College Statistics: 2021/2022 Facts, Data & Trends,” on