‘Access Without Equity’: Mixed Trends in Higher Ed Access

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A new study published in the American Educational Research Journal finds that racial gaps in access to our nation’s selective colleges and universities have widened over the past 40 years, despite increased enrollment among all racial groups. Moreover, this racial stratification has occurred amidst a backdrop of improved academic preparation among all groups of high school graduates.

Access Without Equity: Longitudinal Analyses of Institutional Stratification by Race and Ethnicity, 1972-2004,” uses four longitudinal sets of data to follow high school graduates at four points in time: 1972, 1982, 1992, and 2004. That approach allowed the authors to unearth nuanced trends related to academic preparation and college-going over three decades. The findings show high school grade point averages and course-taking histories among graduates of all racial groups have improved over time, signaling overall increases in college readiness. However, groups improved at relatively similar rates, essentially preserving the readiness gaps. For example, in 1982 the average black high school graduate took Algebra I as her highest math course. By 2004, the average black graduate had reached at least Algebra II. But, white students increased their levels of math course-taking at a similar rate, with the average white student who graduated in 2004 reaching nearly trigonometry or Algebra III.

These improvements were paralleled by increases in college-going among all groups.  For instance, in 1972, 53 percent of black high school graduates and 52 percent of Latino graduates did not enroll in any postsecondary institution in the year after high school. By 2004, these figures had dropped to 26 percent and 32 percent, respectively. However, during this same period, gaps in college access at selective four-year colleges grew, as enrollment rates among white students increased faster than enrollment rates among students of color. For instance, the percentage of black high school graduates attending selective colleges rose from 15 percent to 23 percent, an improvement of 8 percentage points. Meanwhile, the percentage of white graduates attending these institutions grew from 25 percent to 40 percent, an increase of 15 percentage points. Moreover, black students hardly increased their representation at the most selective institutions: In 1972, 1.6 percent attended, and in 2004, 1.9 percent attended. 

National improvements in access are noteworthy, and this study highlights important progress in terms of expanding entry to postsecondary education. Yet, for a nation that prides itself on being the land of equal opportunity,  declines in equity taint this profile of improvement. Good-faith efforts to improve access must continue to boost college-going while also narrowing gaps.

To learn more about how the Ed Trust and NASH are pursuing both of these goals, visit our Access to Success page. 

by Marni Bromberg