AGB Benchmarking Report Highlights Continued Demographic Shifts in Composition of Higher Education Governing Boards

By AGB December 2, 2021 Press Releases
Press Release

For Immediate Release
Morgan Alexander

WASHINGTON, DC (December 2, 2021)The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), the premier organization advocating strategic board leadership in higher education, today released a benchmarking report that showcases continuing demographic shifts in the composition of higher education governing boards. Policies, Practices, and Composition of Governing Boards of Colleges, Universities, and Institutionally Related Foundations 2021 is the latest survey of data that AGB has tracked for governing boards of public and independent institutions since 1969, and for institutionally related foundation boards since 1985.  

The survey captured important data related to board composition. Board members remain predominantly older White men, yet boards’ diversity in terms of gender, age, race, and ethnicity has increased somewhat over the past several years. Women made up 37.1 percent of public boards and 36.3 percent of independent boards in 2020, an increase of more than four percentage points for each sector from 2015. Women made up 35 percent of foundation boards in 2020, an increase of 9.2 percentage points from 2015. Despite gains over the past five years, the overall percentage of female board members does not reflect that 59.5 percent of college students in the United States were women as of spring 2021. 

Regarding racial and ethnic board member makeup, among public boards, just over 30 percent of members were racial or ethnic minorities, an increase of 6.2 percentage points from 2015. Independent boards had just over 17 percent of their members identify as racial or ethnic minorities, an increase of 3.6 percentage points from 2015. Foundation board members from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds made up 11.9 percent of foundation boards in 2020, an increase from 9 percent in 2015. 

“As with gender, the current racial and ethnic breakdown on boards clearly does not—and has not for decades—reflect the college student population that governing boards ultimately serve,” said Lesley McBain, AGB director of research. “It can be problematic if a board is made up of members with too similar backgrounds, not only in terms of age, race, and gender, but in other demographics and perspectives. Boards with more diversity are often more prepared to contribute to new institutional priorities and address a broader swath of potential challenges because of their varied lived experiences.” 

The survey shows that many boards recognize they must do more to support diversity both at the board level and throughout their institutions, systems, and foundations. The report found that 97.6 percent of foundation boards, 95.1 percent of independent boards, and 50 percent of public boards indicated they are currently attempting to diversify their composition. The lower percentage of public boards making movement toward diversification can be attributed to how public board members are appointed, elected, or selected by state officials and other stakeholder groups, compared to private institution boards. The most popular diversification categories for those boards that were currently attempting to diversify their composition were members’ self-identified race and ethnicity, professional background, age, and gender. Other categories included first-generation college student status and giving level. 

Additionally, 31.2 percent of independent institutions, 27.8 percent of public institutions, and 22 percent of foundations reported having a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) plan for the board. Yet most boards have not added a committee specifically to oversee DE&I. Only 3.1 percent of public boards and 6.8 percent of independent boards have added a standing committee; another 4.1 percent of public boards and 11.7 percent of independent boards reported having added an ad hoc DE&I committee. 

The report further captures a range of data on board policies and practices. Readers can find data on executive sessions, board member education opportunities, methods of board member removal, annual giving information, and more. Further, the survey includes foundation-specific results on various policies and practices, such as the endowment size, operating budget, staffing data, and differences in foundation responsibilities across higher education.  

“This survey is the only one of its kind,” said Henry Stoever, AGB president and CEO. “AGB empowers board members to serve as strategic thought partners who, in collaboration with chief executives and leadership team members, focus on equitable student success and long-term institutional vitality. Through this report, our association’s ability to examine how boards have evolved and changed over 50 years provides insight on where higher education, and governance, is heading.” 

Respondents completed the 2020 iteration of the survey on behalf of the governing boards of 539 colleges, universities, public university systems, and institutionally related foundations. A complimentary e-book version of Policies, Practices, and Composition is available for AGB members on the website. Further, this resource is available for preorder in hard-copy format. 

About AGB
The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) is the premier membership organization that strengthens higher education governing boards and the strategic roles they serve within their organizations. Through our vast library of resources, educational events, and consulting services, and with 100 years of experience, we empower 40,000 AGB members from more than 2,000 institutions and foundations to navigate complex issues, implement leading practices, streamline operations, and govern with confidence. AGB is the trusted resource for board members, chief executives, and key administrators on higher education governance and leadership. 


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