Since the 1990s, the number of black and Latino high school graduates who enroll in college has more than doubled. But three-quarters of that increase has been at open-access colleges. Meanwhile, white college enrollment has increased only at the nation’s top 500 universities. As a result, American higher education has evolved into a two-tiered separate and unequal system that fuels the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege.
Our racially stratified postsecondary education system serves as a passive agent that mimics and magnifies the race-based inequities it inherits from the K-12 education system and projects them into the labor market. Whites educated at elite colleges go on to have successful careers, marry other whites with similar backgrounds, and buy homes in the right neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods in turn give their kids access to a top education in pre-K through high school that prepares them for selective colleges, beginning anew the self-sustaining intergenerational cycle of racial privilege.
At the top 500 universities, whites comprise 70 percent of students, compared to their 57 percent share of the college-age population. Meanwhile, as blacks and Latinos have swarmed the halls of open-access colleges, whites have fled them. White students have declined from 68 percent to 49 percent of students at open-access colleges, while black and Latino students have grown from 26 percent to 45 percent.
It should come as no surprise that the outcomes at the top 500 universities and the 3,000 open-access colleges are vastly different: 82 percent of students at top universities graduate, compared to 49 percent of students at open-access colleges. Unequal college outcomes then lead to unequal career success and differential access to graduate school, which is especially important because it is only at the graduate degree level that we see race-based earnings gaps converge.
Separate is all the more unequal because money matters. The top 500 universities spend between two and five times as much per student compared to open-access colleges. Those additional dollars are a huge factor in driving up differences in graduation rates.
Because the top colleges are overwhelmingly attended by white students, American higher education overall is far more effective at helping white students achieve their potential than black and Latino students.
Take, for example, students who score above average on college-entry exams such as the ACT and SAT: More than half the white students in this group earn a BA or advanced degree, compared to 34 percent of black students and 32 percent of Latino students. Similarly, among students with an A average in high school, only 22 percent of whites attend a two-year community college; for blacks and Latinos, it’s 30 percent.
The key is where they go to school: Put blacks and Latinos in those top universities and they do well, too. Blacks and Latinos graduate at a 73 percent rate at the more academically rigorous top 500 universities compared to a 40 percent rate at open-access colleges. Blacks and Latinos who graduate from top universities earn 21 percent more than those who graduate from open-access colleges.
So, what can be done? First, we must also acknowledge the inherent limits of affirmative action as we know it. The racial stratification of higher education is a systemic problem. It will not be solved by opening up a few more seats at the top few dozen colleges. The small share of blacks and Latinos who beat the odds and get into the best colleges are proof that, in the end, it’s the odds that count. Racial disadvantage, like racial privilege, comes from a complex network of mutually reinforcing economic and educational mechanisms that serve as systemic obstacles to racial justice. These economic and educational mechanisms are generally colorblind in theory but not in fact.
Systemic obstacles require systemic responses. We can start thinking systemically by moving away from the current test-crazed admissions competition for seats at our top colleges. Test scores are the crucial factor in admissions decisions at selective colleges, but they explain less than half the difference in graduation rates among students. Yet, test scores enable selective institutions to dodge racial justice behind a superficial shield of institutional quality.
A slight rise in SAT scores may give an elite institution a marginal competitive advantage over its rivals, but it has little social value. A student who gets an average score on the SAT would have an 80 percent chance of graduating from college but has almost no chance of getting into a top university.
We also need to think more systematically about postsecondary funding. Presently, we spend a disproportionate share of our college resources on the most selective college with the most prepared students, which is a bit like reserving the best hospitals for the healthiest people. We need to match educational funding to educational needs throughout the postsecondary system. Adequacy, not access, is the proper standard for postsecondary spending.
Happily, we have seen a large increase in access to postsecondary education for black and Latino students, but access to a separate and unequal system is no gift. The measure of college success that matters is not access, it’s outcomes, including labor market outcomes. The current system creates more dropouts than graduates among black and Latino students. If we would give those students access to selective colleges or the kinds of resources those colleges provide, their graduation rates would almost double. That’s an outcome we can all live with.
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