Minorities and whites follow unequal college paths, report says

The nation’s system of higher education is growing more racially polarized even as it attracts more minorities: White students increasingly are clustering at selective institutions, while blacks and Hispanics mostly are attending open-access and community colleges, according to a new report.

The paths offer widely disparate opportunities and are leading to widely disparate outcomes, said the report released Wednesday by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Students at the nation’s top 468 colleges are the beneficiaries of much more spending — anywhere from two to five times as much as what is spent on instruction at community colleges or other schools without admissions requirements. And students at top schools are far more likely to graduate than students at other institutions, even when they are equally prepared, according to the report. In addition, graduates of top schools are far more likely than others to go on to graduate school.

The financial implications of those differences are huge: A worker with an advanced degree is expected to earn as much as $2.1 million more in his or her lifetime than a college dropout, the report said. Also, the report said graduates of selective colleges earn an average of $67,000 a year 10 years after graduation, about $18,000 a year more than their counterparts who graduate from non-selective schools.

“The American postsecondary system increasingly has become a dual system of racially separate pathways, even as overall minority access to the postsecondary system has grown dramatically,” said Jeff Strohl, the Georgetown center’s director of research, who co-authored the report.

College enrollment still reflects racial and ethnic divisions.

The report focused on a comparison of whites with Hispanic and African American students. Data on the experiences of Asian American and Native American students were too limited for an identical analysis, the authors said.

The report raises disturbing questions about the efficacy of
higher-education policies pursued by a long line of presidents aiming to encourage more Americans to attend college. President Obama has talked about improved access to higher education as a means of combating the nation’s growing income inequality. But the Georgetown report illustrates that higher education is doing more to replicate inequality than to eliminate it.

For that to change, the authors said, policymakers need to work harder to make the experience at non-selective schools more like that at selective ones. That means more spending for those schools, which often struggle with crowded classes and outdated equipment. It also would mean added financial support for students at non-selective schools, who spend more hours working and dealing with family responsibilities than students at selective colleges.

“It is a good-news, bad-news story,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, the report’s other author and director of Georgetown’s workforce center. “Access is up, and inequality is growing a lot with it. And the two are intimately connected.”

Between 1995 and 2009, freshman college enrollment more than doubled for Hispanics while increasing 73 percent for African Americans and 15 percent for whites, who represent a shrinking share of the college-age population.

Those students are largely facing different college experiences. More than eight out of 10 of those new white students attended selective four-year schools, compared with 13 percent for Hispanics and 9 percent for African Americans, the report said.

At the same time, more than two in three African Americans and nearly three in four Hispanics went to open-access colleges, the report said.

Whites represent 75 percent of the students at the nation’s top 468 colleges overall, even though they account for only 62 percent of the nation’s college-age population. Meanwhile, whites make up just 57 percent of the students at open-access schools.

Conversely, black and Hispanic students account for 37 percent of students at open-access schools and only 15 percent at the nation’s selective four-year colleges. Overall, blacks and Hispanics make up one-third of the nation’s college-age population.

The report’s authors said that colleges and policymakers should do more to lure high-achieving black and Hispanic students to top schools, where their chances of graduation and future success would be much greater. The report noted that students with low scores on college-admission tests graduate from top schools at a higher rate than high scorers do from open-access schools.

Currently, 30 percent of African American and Hispanic students who had an A average in while high school wind up at community colleges, compared with 22 percent of whites.

In addition, the report said, more than 111,000 African American and Hispanic students annually graduate in the top half of their high school class but do not earn either a two-year or four-year degree within eight years. If those students had attended one of the top 468 colleges and graduated at rates similar to those of other students there, 73 percent of them would be college graduates.

“The higher-education system is colorblind in theory but in fact operates, at least in part, as a systematic barrier to opportunity for many blacks and Hispanics, many of whom are college-qualified but tracked into overcrowded and under-funded colleges, where they are less likely to develop fully or to graduate,” Carnevale said.

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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