Although the push to develop more inclusive career opportunities has increased over time, our educational and work institutions still retain barriers that limit diversity. More work is needed in schools and in the workplace to challenge and break them down.

What are these barriers?

Students face hurdles because of their race, gender, socio-economic status and culture — not as much as they used to — but these barriers still exist, says Kim Folsom, chairwoman and CEO of Founders First Capital Partners in San Diego.

Those obstacles may include attendance, finances and achievement, as well as lack of guidance.

Many in this underserved population are first-generation seekers of higher education and have to navigate their way alone, says Folsom, who was recently named chairwoman of the Board of Trustees for City University of Seattle. Even if students overcome these challenges at the start of their college career, they continue to face barrier after barrier throughout the course of their enrollment.

“Historically and now, institutions of higher education were not designed for enrolling and retaining critical masses of diverse ethnic-racial students,” says Antonio Estudillo, Ph.D., director of Social Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at City University of Seattle. “As a result, existing systems, policies, curriculum and the way student debt is addressed, combined, can undermine access to attaining a degree.”

Studies indicate colleges graduate low-income students, first-generation students and students of color at lower rates than majority populations. 

“Some common themes [for this] stem from the lack of a support system, role models and easily accessible mentors,” says Sumantra Sengupta, Ph.D., dean of the School of Business and Management at City University. “The absence of this type of help can make the journey through college even more taxing.”

When institutions are prepared to receive and retain diverse student populations, often there exists both a profound awareness of the communities being served and multiple systems in place to support them, Estudillo says.

Ways to break down barriers

Folsom says students can help themselves by speaking to higher education counselors about programs that provide additional training, education and work experience that will advance their careers.

“They can also seek out community that have youth and educational development programs, and school and college counselors to learn about programs seeking to increase the level of diversity, she says.

But the bigger burden lies with the educators and institutions. To demonstrate their support of diverse populations early on, colleges must supply information about their processes to local high school counselors. That includes which high schoolers would be best suited for their course offerings, how to get financial help and how to navigate the complex registration processes. Some students become so confused by registration that they give up.

“Students attending or considering attending a higher education institution need well-informed university leaders and faculty who will re-examine their own awareness, training, approach to engagement and methods of teaching to better account for student demographics,” Estudillo says. “In other words, actualizing a just and equitable educational system.”


Diversifying school leadership and the teaching force should be prioritized, says Estudillo. Grow Your Own initiatives or community-centered programs, including teacher preparation, can activate a collaborative and comprehensive framing for recruiting, developing, hiring and retaining diverse educators.

“CityU has a program that increases the diversity of its teachers,” says Folsom. “It opens up an alternate route to earning a teaching certificate quickly and easily.”

Institutions also need to support their instructors through continuous professional learning opportunities and invest in strengthening community-university partnerships, Estudillo says.

Higher education institutions play a significant role in formally educating our workforce, he says. So increasing community engagement and public interest may lend to a more robust and representative framing around pressing community needs and how institutions can better serve the greater good.

CityU realized there’s always going to be more work to be done in the realm of diversity and inclusion, so it formed a coalition of staff, faculty and students who work together to determine how to advance causes of social justice and equity. Folsom says the university also launched specific programs to increase the number of diverse teachers with advanced degrees through its participation in Seattle Central College’s Academy for Rising Educators.

But even though these barriers to diversity and inclusion are addressed within education, they still continue into the workplace.

When students complete their degrees and enter the workforce, equity can still be problematic. They may still lack enough economic resources or even sufficient internet connectivity, says Folsom.

They may also find fewer opportunities for advancement. “Lower-level positions have more representation in diversity than the higher-level ones,” she says.

Employers can offer programs for staff so they can advance. They can also commit to increasing the diversity of their workforce, she says.

Employees face obstacles in the hiring process through to career advancement, salary, retention and maintaining a work-life balance, says Estudillo. “In the case of diverse representation, the barriers that exist can reinforce a decreased sense of community, belonging and trust, further exacerbating the already strenuous times we live in.”

Sengupta says that the journey of a student should not end with the securing of a degree. Continuing to mentor them after graduation, providing lifelong access to career services and ensuring graduates always have a “home” (via connections with faculty and administrators) is key to continuing to break down barriers.

This change has to start somewhere. By starting with building a strong foundation of diversity and inclusion in education, wider opportunities to continue expanding equitable systems, policies and culture in the workplace become more attainable.

City University of Seattle is a private nonprofit university accredited through the doctoral level. It has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the Top 50 in the country for its online bachelor’s degree programs for eight consecutive years.