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Today, more Americans graduate high school and go on to college than ever before. But as the country becomes more diverse — the Census Bureau expects that by 2020 more than half of the nation's children will be part of a minority race or ethnic group — are colleges and universities ready to serve them?
"If you look at the past 50, almost 60 years, you see we have made a lot of progress as a country in terms of high school seniors deciding to go to college in the 1.5 years after graduating," says Andrew Nichols, director of higher education research and data analytics at the Education Trust, a nonprofit. "And that isn't just white students. It's also for black and Latinos. You're seeing that increase for everybody."
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2015, 88 percent of seniors – nearly 3 million students – graduated high school. By the following October, 69 percent of them – or more than 2 million people – were enrolled in college.
But where are they attending? And do they graduate?
"There's a great deal of stratification in terms of where students are enrolling," says Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. "African American, Hispanic, and low-income students tend to be more highly concentrated in community colleges and in for-profit colleges more so than their classmates."
The same is true for Asian Americans, says Robert Teranishi, a professor of education at UCLA and the director of the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE). The largest concentration of Asian-American students – about half – attends community colleges, he says. It's also where enrollment of Asian Americans is increasing the fastest.
But because community colleges have low six-year graduation rates (39 percent according to a report by the American Association of Community Colleges), this means that few of those students will actually earn degrees. "The problem is there's not a lot of expansion in higher education," Teranishi says. As a result, some students end up in subpar schools where they may never earn a degree. "A lot of students are relegated to two-years or they're ending up in four-year institutions that are not doing a good job at helping students succeed and earn a degree," he says. "They're being set up in a bad situation."
Meanwhile, the nation's selective institutions — the Ivy Leagues and flagship public universities — are becoming even more selective, and remaining mostly white. According to the 2013 report "Separate & Unequal" from the Georgetown Center for Higher Education and the Workforce, since 1995, 80 percent of America's white college students have enrolled in the country's 468 most well-funded, selective four-year colleges and universities. These schools spend two to nearly five times as much per student as do the 3,250 less resourced, open-access colleges (which do not require applications) where students of color are concentrated.
The study also found that while inequalities of race and class overlap quite a bit, race has a distinctive negative effect. Even after controlling for academic achievement in high school, black and Latino students attend selective institutions at far lower rates and drop out of college more often.
As a result, whites have higher graduation rates and are more likely to attain advanced degrees and higher future earnings, even among equally qualified students. Anthony Carnevale, the director of the center and one of the authors of the report, told NPR in 2013 that, "We found ... that while more and more minorities are going on to college, that the system itself was becoming even more unequal. That is, we were getting more and more access, and access was bringing more and more inequality, and the inequality mattered."
For Asian Americans, a false perception persists that they're universally high achieving. Teranishi says that they're treated as a homogenous group even though there are many ethnic subgroups, and that there's not enough data tracking subgroups. A 2011 report by CARE found that up to two-third of Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States don't have any form of post-secondary education and that for the ones who do enter college, half drop out.
"They're generally overlooked and underserved when it comes to college opportunity programs, college access, or even student services or programs on campus," Teranishi says. "And really, it's rooted in this model-minority myth. There's not a lot of understanding about their actual experiences or outcomes."
Yet the model-minority myth persists. A 2014 lawsuit alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans draws on that stereotype. "I think there's been some false advertising and alternative facts, if you will, around the implications of the consideration of race for blacks and Latinos and Native Americans for other students of color. There's a lot of false narrative in terms of it harming the Asian American population," says Lorelle Espinosa of the Center for Policy, Research and Strategy at the American Council on Education (ACE). Espinosa also questions who was behind the lawsuit, referring to Edward Blum, a conservative legal strategist.
Teranishi finds it disconcerting that Asian Americans are used as a wedge group against other people of color and says these claims of discrimination have scant evidence. "It's not like Harvard can admit every student who is in the top of their class with a 4.0 GPA or who has a perfect SAT. That outnumbers the number of students Harvard admits each year. There's a lot more criteria involved in the selection process," he says.
"The other thing that concerns me is that this narrative ... removes Asian Americans from the broader discourse about the importance of diversity and equity in higher education. So that's concerning because Asian Americans, like other students, they benefit from being exposed to students of other racial backgrounds."
Several studies have shown that diverse student bodies benefit students of all races by improving intellectual engagement, citizenship, and cognitive skills. The positive effects stay with them even after they graduate college.
Andrew Nichols of the Education Trust says it's important to look at selective institutions, not just because of opportunities for success and upward economic mobility for individual students, but also because many leaders come from these schools.
"If our leaders are going to come from those places, they are hopefully coming from an environment that's diverse that may inform their opinions, which may end up being practice or policy in government or major companies in the future," he says. "That's why it's important to continue to talk about some of these highly selective schools even though they're a small percentage of the larger system here in higher ed."
There was a time — in the late 1800s — when there wasn't even a college application because college was for the privileged few who could afford it. Once private colleges opened their doors to public-school students, demand outstripped supply, and the college application was born. Columbia University unveiled the first college application in 1919. It was eight pages. In 1926, the SAT exam was introduced.
Today, we are in a period of holistic admissions, not just for undergraduate admissions, but also for graduate schools and medical schools. In addition to test scores and academic metrics, an individual's experiences, talents, and interests are also taken into account. Ironically, this emphasis on a "well-rounded" student was developed as a sly way for elite colleges to reduce the number of Jewish students, who aced test-based admissions and surged in numbers on college campuses in the early 1900s. By 1922, they made up more than a fifth of Harvard's freshman class, and elite schools began asking applicants to submit photos, write personal essays, list extracurricular activities, state their religious preference, and sit for interviews, according to Jerome Karabel's book The Chosen. Legacy admissions — which give preference to the children of alumni — were also introduced during this time.
With a large gap that still exists between underrepresented students of color and whites, 60 percent of the most selective institutions — those that admit 40 percent or fewer applicants — consider race in admissions, says a 2015 report from ACE.
However, some experts lament that race is not discussed as explicitly as it was during the era of affirmative action. Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities says that legal challenges to affirmative action have eroded the explicit understanding of race as a vital factor in college admissions. "You were looking at numbers and quotas and an understanding that you needed to redress past discrimination partially by giving the aggrieved populations a leg up," he says.
In 1978, the Supreme Court banned racial quotas in Regents of University of California v. Bakke. But it also stated that schools could consider race to be one of several factors in college admissions in order to achieve diverse student bodies. After the Bakke case, the language around race became murkier, Nassirian says.
"We even lost the vocabulary of articulating the issue and began to segue from 'racial justice' to 'diversity.' You were no longer speaking with the clarity of conscience that says, 'You know, as a nation, historically, we committed genocide against Native Americans. That was a bad thing to do. The ones who made it deserve special consideration.' ... And we began to speak in the happier language of today, 'Oh it's Noah's Ark. Two of every kind.'"
Some have suggested that income is a better way to ensure that underrepresented students of all races gain access to college. "That cadre of thinkers pins it to upward mobility for all, as opposed to strictly considering race," says Espinosa, one of the authors of the ACE study. She points out that in states where considerations of race were banned in admissions (there are eight), immediately after those decisions were implemented, enrollment of underrepresented minority groups fell significantly. "The data out there bears out that if you do truly want racial diversity, you really do have to consider race."
To improve outcomes for underrepresented students, institutions need to make it a priority at the top with presidents, provosts, and deans, Nichols says. "We're really pushing the idea that the decisions that institutions make on a day-to-day basis and the priority of student success is a significant player in the outcomes that they have. It's not necessarily simply just a byproduct of the students you enroll, which is often times what campus leaders will tell you," he says, referring to schools that say some of their students aren't college ready.
While it's true that students from under-resourced high schools may not be as academically prepared as their peers, institutions can make up for that, Nichols says. The Education Trust runs a website that compares schools with similar profiles and has found that some are better at graduating students of color and low-income students. A recent Education Trust study analyzed graduation rates of black students at 676 schools, identifying those that performed well, and those that did not, at closing the achievement gap.
"Some institutions need to be less concerned about students being college ready and they need to be more concerned about being student ready," Nichols says. "When they're student ready, they're able to really put forward a suite of interventions that can make it easier for students to navigate the system and get out of there with an degree in a timely fashion."
Yvonne Romero Da Silva, director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. She points to the GI Bill after World War II as an example of how higher education institutions can support students with academic gaps. "A large number of these veterans maybe had not even finished high school or had the requisite courses that you might expect at a college or university. And yet colleges and universities did what they could to really support them."
One way of closing the gap is to be intentional about recruiting from minority and low-income communities. University of Pennsylvania partners with organizations like QuestBridge and A Better Chance to recruit underrepresented students and make sure the message gets out that they are committed to supporting families with financial need. Once students arrive on campus, they find that the university has cultural resource centers to support them, including an LGBT center, a women's center, and cultural houses for students of various racial backgrounds.
Another feature of schools that are successful at closing the achievement gap is that they consistently review data to identify and address issues hindering their students, Nichols said. Mamie Voight from the Institute for Higher Education Policy points to Florida State University as a good example. Its 2014 overall graduation rate was 79 percent. Among white, Asian American, Native American, and Latino students, there was no gap in the graduation rate. Black students had just a 1 percent gap.
Florida State University has a team that meets weekly to review data. One trend the team noticed was that Latinas were not graduating at as high a rate as others, even though they had good grades. By talking to students, the school discovered that these students were being called home several hours away for family responsibilities and could not always get back to campus. So they would drop out for a short period and re-enroll, or not come back at all. To serve these students, Florida State contracted with a bus company to come to school on Friday afternoons and return to campus on Sunday evenings.
Successful institutions "talk about using data, not just looking at 6-year graduation rates," Voight says. "They do look at those, but they're also looking at data in more real time and in more fine grain ways to understand who is succeeding and who is not, and where there may be some institutional barriers that are preventing students from ultimately succeeding."