It may seem paradoxical that even as more black and Hispanic students attend college, America's system of higher education is becoming more racially polarized and unequal, with whites far more likely to graduate, earn advanced degrees or find good jobs than their minority peers.
Yet that's exactly what researchers at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce recently found. The reason? While white students are increasingly clustered in the nation's top 468 schools with selective admissions policies, most of the nation's minority students attend open-access and community colleges that spend substantially less on instruction than their more selective counterparts — leading to wildly divergent opportunities and outcomes for students.
"The American postsecondary system increasingly has become a dual system of racially separate pathways, even as overall minority access to the postsecondary system has grown dramatically," said Jeff Strohl, the center's director. His research suggests that selective colleges spend two to five times as much on instruction as schools without admissions requirements, and that such disparities are helping to replicate inequality.
Though college enrollment is up substantially among both white and minority students, more than 80 percent of the increase for white students represents selective four-year schools, the report notes, compared with just 13 percent for Hispanics and 9 percent for blacks. At the same time, more than two-thirds of African-Americans and nearly three-quarters of Hispanics who attend college attend non-selective schools. Not only are students at selective schools far more likely to graduate in general, but even students with low scores on college admissions tests who attend selective schools graduated at a higher rate than high-scoring students at open-admissions institutions.
The researchers suggest the nation should work harder to make the college experience at open-access schools more like that at selective schools and do more to attract blacks and Hispanics to top schools, where their chances of graduating are greater. In Maryland, for example, the new presidents of the hisorically black Coppin State University and Morgan State University, where graduation rates have lagged behind the state's other private and public institutions of higher education, have instituted more selective admissions policies aimed at attracting students who are better prepared to do college-level work, and both schools have benefited from additional state funding to improve the quality of instruction and programs.
But Maryland's experience also suggests that much more needs to be done than simply admitting more minorities to selective schools. One of the biggest reasons students leave college before graduation is that they graduate high school inadequately prepared for college-level work. The state needs to do a much better job preparing students at the secondary school level — especially minorities from low-performing school districts — so they won't have to spend time taking remedial courses before they can begin earning college credits.
Nor are community colleges in of themselves a cause of inequality. Both white and minority students at Maryland community colleges located in jurisdictions with high-performing public schools (such as Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel counties) go on to graduate from public and private four-year institutions at about the same rate as their counterparts at selective colleges and universities. Again, their success seems more a result of how academically well-prepared they were when they entered community college than of how selective the schools they eventually gradated from were.
What Maryland needs to work on is strengthening college prep programs across the state and making sure its community colleges, where a significant proportion of its young people begin their postsecondary education careers, are adequately funded and supported so they can accomplish their remedial mission. Private colleges and universities, at least in Maryland, aren't necessarily better than public institutions, and four-year schools aren't always superior to community colleges for students who are not yet ready for college-level work.
There's no doubt that white students at the nation's top schools enjoy advantages and opportunities that are unavailable to their black and Hispanic peers at non-selective schools. But the key to closing the racial gap in college graduation rates may lie not so much in making schools without admissions requirements more like schools that have them but in making sure all students have access to high-quality secondary school programs that enable them to take full advantage of all the opportunities offered by the state's system of higher education.