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

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A study published recently in the American Educational Research Journal finds that racial gaps in access to our nation’s selective colleges and universities have widened by about 7 percentage points over the past 40 years, despite increased enrollment among all racial groups. Moreover, this racial stratification has occurred against 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 data sets 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.

A similar study, published in the same journal, examined math course taking (another key component of college and career preparation) and found similar trends. According to the study, “Does Raising the Bar Level the Playing Field? Mathematics Curricular Intensification and Inequality in American High Schools, 1982-2004,” gap-closing occurred at some points along the math-course pipeline between 1982 and 2004, but gaps at the highest level, calculus, remained unchanged over time. For example, after adjusting for prior achievement and family backgrounds, the average student with low socioeconomic status was 16 percentage points less likely to take Algebra II in 1982 than the average student with high socioeconomic status. However by 2004, this gap had shrunk to 11 percentage points. Still, the gap in calculus completion did not budge, an especially troubling trend given that selective colleges and universities likely evaluate prospective students on the rigor of their high school courses.

That high school gap-closing occurred only at lower curricular levels provides at least a partial explanation for trends in access at postsecondary institutions. On the one hand, all student groups increased their college-going rates. For example, 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. Thus the black/white gap in access to selective institutions grew from 10.4 percentage points in 1972 to 17.7 percentage points in 2004.

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. Moreover, these studies point out that gap-closing requires improvements at all points of the achievement distribution, not just the bottom. Equity at the top, in upper-level math courses and in our nation’s selective colleges, is just as important.

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

— Marni Bromberg