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Higher Ed: Engine of Inequity

By Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed

From Horace Mann to President Obama, and legions of politicians and educators in between, education has been heralded as the great equalizer, an institution that can balance (if not undo) racial, ethnic or other inequities that separate segments of society.

If higher education in the United States ever fulfilled that role, it is doing so less and less, not more, as time passes.

That is the stark and in many ways distressing conclusion of a report released today by researchers at Georgetown University: “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege.”

The report's assertion that African-American and Latino youth -- especially those from low-income backgrounds -- are underrepresented at the nation’s 468 most selective four-year colleges and overrepresented at the 3,250 open-access two- and four-year institutions will probably surprise few; that’s a circumstance of long standing.

But it surprised even the lead researcher, Anthony Carnevale, a grizzled expert on educational access and equity, to find that the situation steadily worsened from 1994 to 2009 -- even, importantly, when comparing minority and white students with similar academic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Rather than function to reverse gaps generated by inequities in K-12 education and housing and health, Carnevale says, higher education is now serving as a "capstone" that exacerbates those other mechanisms.

"The postsecondary system mimics and magnifies the racial and ethnic inequality in educational preparation it inherits from the K-12 system and then projects this inequality into the labor market," write Carnevale and his co-author, Jeff Strohl. Carnevale is director, and Strohl director of research, of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce.

"More college completion among white parents brings higher earnings that fuel the intergenerational reproduction of privilege by providing more highly educated parents the means to pass their educational advantages on to their children," they write. "Higher earnings buy more expensive housing in the suburbs with the best schools and peer support for educational attainment. The synergy between the growing economic value of education and the increased sorting by housing values makes parental education the strongest predictor of a child’s educational attainment and future earnings. As a result, the country also has the least intergenerational educational and income mobility among advanced nations."

The report is not all downbeat. Over the 15-year period it examines, African-American and Hispanic access to higher education did increase (though primarily at open-access institutions), and there are significant numbers of academically qualified minority students who could fill seats at the 468 selective colleges identified in the study (which calls them "low-hanging fruit").

But because the higher education outcomes are reinforcing patterns set much earlier in students' lives and ingrained much more deeply in the country's K-12 and housing systems, Carnevale says, altering them would take a comprehensive, many-year social policy campaign akin to the Great Society -- a prospect that seems somewhat unlikely, to say the least.

A Climb in Competitiveness

The researchers make their case with a narrative of census, educational, and work place data. The story goes something like this:

It starts with the good news: Between 1995 and 2009, the number of Hispanic and African-American freshmen enrolling in college grew by 107 and 73 percent, respectively, compared to 15 percent for white Americans. Much of this increase was driven by population gains in the minority groups, but the growth also shows that the intentional effort by advocacy groups and policy makers to increase the educational aspirations and college-going patterns of underrepresented groups worked.

But higher education has a hierarchy, and that is where the picture starts to change. The authors divide postsecondary education into three tiers: most-selective (which incorporates the most, highly, and very competitive segments identified by Barron’s), a middle “competitive” tier of four-year colleges, and all other four-year and two-year institutions, all of which essentially admit all students.

Between 1995 and 2009, the most-selective category proportionally saw the most expansion, growing in enrollment by 78 percent, from 325,068 to 578,645. (The middle tier grew to near 560,000 from 435,000, and the open-access institutions to 1.63 million from 1.35 million.) The growth in the top tier may seem counterintuitive, given that highly selective institutions typically do not grow (after all, many are selective precisely because they limit the number of students they admit, even as competition for the seats increases).

But much of the growth in students in the top competitive tiers has occurred because of significant growth in the number of colleges in those tiers. In 1995, Barron’s listed 326 in its top three levels of competitiveness (which includes at the lower end institutions with median test scores of between 1150 and 1240 on the SAT or 24-26 on the ACT, and that admit between a third and three-fourths of their applicants). By 2009, 468 colleges were in the three categories.

Just as the institutions have moved into the more selective ranks, largely in search of better rankings, the authors state, so too have students.

All racial groups had larger proportions of their college students in the top three tiers of selectivity in 2009 than they did in in 1995, as seen in the table below. But the gains for African Americans and Hispanics are tiny compared to those for whites and Asians.

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