For all their efforts to enroll more minority students, U.S. colleges and universities are becoming more polarized in terms of of race and ethnicity according to a just-published report from Georgetown University. That is, our current higher education system is not, as so often said, a pathway to the middle class for students. It is rather reinforcing existing distinctions of race, ethnicity and class.
The report, entitled “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege,” describes U.S. higher education as
…a system in which elite selective colleges enroll predominantly white students while black and Hispanic students, even high-achieving ones, largely attend open-access institutions. Because the latter group of colleges spends less on instruction and sees lower shares of students through to graduation, higher education has thus become a “passive agent” in perpetuating white privilege.
College enrollment has increased for minority students: from 1995 to 2009, freshman enrollments for African-American students rose by 73 percent and, for Hispanic students, by 107 percent. Freshman enrollment for white students only rose by 15 percent, though one should take into account that a larger proportion of white students have been attending college all along.
In the time period (1995-2009) studied, most minority students ended up at “open-access” institutions with far less selective criteria for admission and, in many cases, far fewer resources, says the report:
…among white freshmen during that time, 82 percent of new enrollments were at the most selective four-year institutions, whereas most of the new freshman enrollments for Hispanic and African-American students—72 percent and 68 percent, respectively—were at open-access two- and four-year institutions.
Minority students who attend open-access institutions are only half as likely to attend more selective ones, the report found.
Other facts including low income and low parental education also play a part in why minority students are not finishing college, says Anthony P. Carnevale, the Georgetown center’s director and a co-author of the report. But he underscored that “race is an added vulnerability.”
How Do We End Inequality in U.S. Colleges?
Disparities in college graduate rates based on students’ race and economic backgrounds are not exactly news. “Stratification has been apparent for decades and has only gotten worse,” Michael A. Olivas, director of the Institute of Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston, comments in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Olivas underscored the need for “more examination of legislative and legal solutions, and greater attention to the plight of immigrant students.”
To get more African-American and Hispanic students to apply to more selective institutions, Deborah A. Santiago, co-founder and vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, an advocacy group for Latino students, suggests that such schools need to go beyond the usual admission events (college fairs at high schools). Schools need to reach out to students via their communities, by establishing partnerships with churches and other local organizations.
How About Offering Open-Access Schools More Support?
I’d also suggest that we acknowledge that just because a school is selective and has a worldwide reputation for education excellence does not mean it is the best school for everyone. While the graduation rate for students at open-access colleges is lower, there are still strategies that such schools can offer to more selective ones.
For the past eight years, I’ve taught at the sort of open-access school (whose students are predominantly African-American, Asian and Hispanic) that the Georgetown report refers to. I attended more selective schools for my own education and almost all of the students at my graduation were the same ones with whom I had started college four years earlier.
At the small university I teach at, it’s often the case that students take at least five years to graduate; more than a few withdraw and then return after some time (sometimes, quite a few years) has passed. All of my students have stories about financial setbacks and family and personal realities that meant their path to a college degree was not straightforward. Hearing these makes me think that, while there are certainly benefits to attending selective schools, there are advantages to attending open-access ones, where a student can live at or near home and have access to a network of family, friends and community organizations for support.
At a time when the word “debt” has become near synonymous with “a college education,” students who attend local schools often face lower rates for tuition, no extra costs for living in dormitories and paying for cafeteria contracts and can still work to help pay for the education. Accommodating for these realities — by having classes in the evening, for instance, or online — can play a small but significant role in ensuring a student stays in school and earns a degree.
Many have been questioning the value of a college degree as reports of students graduating with huge debts and minimal job prospects circulate. What about providing more resources for open-access schools or creating partnerships between such schools and selective ones? We only reinforce white privilege by assuming that selective schools hold the answers for helping every student.
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