Blacks and Latinos Still Locked Out of Elite Colleges

As the achievement gap narrows, top schools increase admissions standards.

By Julianne Hing Nov 22, 2010

A new report shows that blacks and Latinos might be gaining more access to higher education, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gaining access to all tiers of the system. The study, led by Michael Bastedo, a professor at the University of Michigan, says that even though college-going rates for blacks and Latinos are on the rise, they’ve been accompanied by a parallel increase in admissions standards which have locked them out of the top colleges, and only further entrenched stratification in the higher education world.

What people already know is that a college education from a community college is not the same as one from an Ivy League university, let alone one that students get from a private college or a state school. And even though community colleges remain an important entry point for many into higher education, people who start at community colleges end up leaving before obtaining a diploma, and the most selective universities offer long-term benefits–access to networks and opportunities–that go far beyond the classroom.

Blacks and Latinos end up disproportionately in community colleges or even at for-profit schools, while whites and Asian-Americans (the study does not disaggregate this data into ethnic breakdowns) have made gains to end up in four-year public and private colleges. And the most selective schools have tougher admissions standards these days, requiring extracurricular activities, AP classes and ever-higher SAT scores, which in turn has only further entrenched inequities in the higher ed world.

"Just as they improve their own qualifications, what is being asked of them by our colleges is increasing, " said Bastedo.

"These students cannot keep up with rising demands and what is being accomplished by other students who are competing to get into the same colleges. It is just that every step of the way, students from other backgrounds are one step ahead."

The researchers also found race and class played significant roles in the emerging trends. People of color who had strong academic preparation and came from wealthier families were the most likely to be enrolled in what researchers called "the most selective colleges and universities," but at top colleges even among students of color, schools saw a real drop-off in socioeconomic diversity.

"The proportion of whites in the most competitive institutions who are from the highest socioeconomic quartile has hovered around 70 percent since 1972," the authors wrote. "By contrast, while only 9 percent of blacks and 9 percent of Latinos in the most selective institutions were from the highest socioeconomic quartile in 1972, by 2004 49 percent of blacks and 35 percent of Latinos were from the highest socioeconomic quartile."

The data is key because President Obama has set 2020 as the date when he wants the U.S. to lead the world in college completion rates, which will require another 8 million college graduates in the next ten years.

"In a single generation, we’ve fallen from first place to 12th place in college graduation rates for young adults," Obama said in August at UT Austin. Currently, 70 percent of high school students enroll in college, but only about 57 percent actually graduate. Among students of color and low-income students, the numbers are more critical. Less than half graduate. Obama put it another way: "Over one third of America’s college students and over one half of our minority students don’t earn a degree, even after six years."

And so students of color are key to Obama’s being able to accomplish his goals. Obama never specified which colleges he wants students to be graduating from–any college degree seems fine enough for the president. But increasing inequities will only make overcoming racial gaps in educational achievement ever more difficult.

Thankfully, the report’s authors argue that the problem is not intractable. Their findings showed that when students from different backgrounds are given equal access to rigorous academic preparation, "racial disparities in selective college enrollment will decline over time." The University of Michigan researchers argue that blacks and Latinos need academic preparation that’s comparable to the kind whites and Asian Americans have access to.

"What does the declining significance of race and the rising role of academic preparation, which is unequally distributed across race, mean for equity rates of enrollment in more and less selective universities?" they ask.