Reports Show Higher Ed’s Persistent Race and Income Gaps

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When it comes to closing gaps, higher education has work to do. A new study from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows students of color continue to lag behind their peers in overall college enrollment. Another study, from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, shows low-income students and students of color are especially underrepresented at the country’s most selective institutions, where gaps have actually worsened despite efforts to close them in recent decades.

The NCES data show that while enrollment for students from all groups in any type of postsecondary education program within two years of high school graduation has increased from 63 percent in 1974 to 78 percent in 2006, African-American and Hispanic seniors are still less likely than their white peers to enroll in four-year, two-year, or certificate programs. Only 72 percent of black seniors and 68 percent of Hispanic seniors enroll, compared to 81 percent of their white peers. Students of color are also more likely than are white students to delay enrollment, rather than attend immediately in the fall after their senior year. And, importantly, immediate enrollment has been linked to greater chances of graduation.

The Stanford study shows that these gaps are worse at highly selective institutions. A white student graduating high school in 2004 was three times more likely than a Hispanic student and five times more likely than a black student to enroll in a highly selective college. Even after controlling for income, white students are two-to-three times more likely than black students to enroll in highly selective colleges, suggesting that income-based strategies alone are not sufficient to close higher education’s persistent gaps. This is not to say that these strategies are not necessary: 21 percent of the students surveyed came from families with annual incomes below $25,000, and only 6.3 percent of those students attended a highly selective college. Compare this with the 26 percent of surveyed families who had incomes exceeding $75,000: 58 percent of those students attended highly selective schools.

One of the most unsettling facts in these surveys is that the gaps have actually worsened over time: In 1982, white students were 2.5 times more likely to enroll in a highly selective school than their black peers, compared to five times more likely two decades later. Becoming part of a diverse student body only adds to a student’s postsecondary education experience. Yet these new reports show that at many schools, especially the selective ones, such diversity isn’t present. These gaps have persisted for three decades. Institutions must work hard to ensure they do not continue for another three.

— Nicole Tortoriello