Despite efforts to increase access to higher education for underrepresented students, the stark contrast between the pre- and post-secondary pathways of white and minority students illustrates the persistence of inequality.
In a ground-breaking 2013 report, “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege,” Anthony Carnevale and Jeffrey Strohl identify the rapid intensification of the stratification by race and ethnicity in the nation’s postsecondary system.
White students are highly concentrated in the 468 most well-funded, selective four-year institutions, while Hispanic and African American students are disproportionately concentrated in the 3,250 open-access colleges and universities that are less well-funded and disproportionately less-resourced. Although college enrollment of minority students has increased, 82 percent of the increase in white freshman enrollment occurred in the most selective four-year colleges, compared with only 9 percent in African American enrollment and 13 percent in Hispanic enrollment at these top-tier institutions.
Carnevale and Strohl’s report underscores a key axiom: the baccalaureate degree is the “crucial threshold for racial and ethnic equality.” As these researchers point out, while race- and class-based inequalities in education overlap, race has a unique impact on college and career opportunities, since African Americans and Hispanics are more concentrated among low-income populations and are more spatially and socially isolated from society as a whole.
At the same time, because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions beginning with Bakke v. University of California (1978) and culminating in the recent Fisher v. University of Texas ruling (2013), the means available to colleges and universities to increase access to underrepresented minority students have been dramatically curtailed.
In the Fisher decision, the justices indicated that before an institution could even consider race or ethnicity as one factor among many in a holistic review process, a reviewing court must be satisfied that “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.” Furthermore, race may not be used if nonracial methods are available at “tolerable administrative expense” and if nonracial methods would promote the substantial interest in the university’s objectives “about as well.”
Over a period of nearly two decades, eight states have banned affirmative action in the admissions processes for public institutions through executive order, legislative action, or voter-initiated ballot proposal. And bans in California and Washington have had impact on the adjacent states of Arizona, Nevada, and Idaho, while the Fifth Circuit’s 2001 Johnson v. Board of Regents of the University of Georgiacase has essentially foreclosed affirmative action in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
We know also that the pre-college pathway is characterized by profound structural inequity that has deepened through the progressive resegregation of the K-12 system. This regressive shift began with a 1991 Supreme Court decision that led to the dismantling of school segregation plans and culminated in the 2007 Supreme Court cases involving the Louisville and Seattle school districts. In the latter cases, the Court found two voluntary desegregation plans unconstitutional despite the plans’ goal of achieving integrated schools. As a result, considering race to address school segregation was determined to be unconstitutional.
We also know that the penalties of residential and school segregation are both harsh and long-lasting. Minority students tend to live in poorer neighborhoods, and the less amply resourced schools they attend have a significant impact on these students’ readiness for college and academic preparation.
A 2012 report by Gary Orfield, John Kucsera, and Genevieve Siegel titled “E Pluribus…Separation” finds that the double segregation of race and poverty disproportionately affects African American and Latino students, with 80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of African American students attending majority nonwhite schools with nearly double the share of low-income students than the typical white or Asian students. These students are less likely to benefit from the traditional intergenerational mobility provided by parental education and may “undermatch” by choosing to apply to less selective institutions based on the perception that top-tier institutions will be more costly.
In light of recent Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action, the road to educational attainment requires new admissions strategies that embody the notion of holistic, individual review of applications while taking into account the hardships that accompany the academic journey to college.
In the face of bans on affirmative action, percent plans that provide automatic admission to a certain percentage of a high school’s graduating class have served as a surrogate mechanism in some states for addressing the racial isolation of schools and the phenomenon of resegregation.
Looking forward, in preparing students for participation in our increasingly diverse democracy, colleges and universities now face the immediate challenge of developing creative, new strategies that will not only withstand legal scrutiny but, more importantly, will sustain and enhance diversity and inclusiveness in campus environments.●
Edna B. Chun, DM, is an educational leader and award-winning author with over two decades of human resource and diversity leadership experience in public higher education in the California, Florida, and Ohio state systems. She currently serves as associate vice chancellor for human resource services at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.