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Less Blacks Attending Top Universities

Issues of race and economic depravity continue to greatly hamper the educational pursuits of blacks, with a new study revealing African Americans and students from families with household incomes nowhere near those of the upper tiers are five to eight times less likely to gain admissions at universities typically stamped as among the nation’s best.

Despite a slew of federal programs designed and implemented over the last half century to more or less level the playing the field in terms of the classroom achievement gap between the rich and poor, the Sanford University Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) study finds blacks remain five times less likely to enroll at campuses deemed as “highly selective” and that whites are also two to three times more likely to gain admissions at such universities, regardless of income levels.

The plight of Hispanic students fell to register much higher, with whites three times as likely to gain admittance in a selective college as that sector. Overall, researchers found the gap in test scores between higher income and low-income children has grown by roughly 40 percent and is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

“We had expected the relationship between family income and children’s test scores to be pretty stable over time,” said Sean Reardon, chief study researcher and an associate professor of Education at Stanford. “It’s a well-known fact that the two are related. But the fact that the gap has grown substantially, especially in the last 25 years, was quite surprising, striking and troubling.”

Of equal concern are findings concluding that merely adjusting admission policies or even academically improving college preparation standards among minority students will not be enough in adding a greater level of diversity based on racial or socioeconomic factors. Instead, researchers argue a comprehensive overhaul of the system is needed, one which seeks to reform the college application, admission and enrollment processes.

Still, Reardon stresses that the breadth of the overall problem runs much deeper than such simple solution, pointing out that rarely has there ever been a greater degree of segregation between the have and have nots.  Reardon theorizes that nowadays higher income families are investing more time and money into the welfare of their children, adding to the degree of separation felt between the dueling demographics.

“If you have money, generally your neighbors have money, which means you probably have access to better child care and preschools, and better elementary schools, parks and libraries,” he said. On the other hand, he adds:  “it’s harder to be poor in America than it used to be. Some aspects of the social safety net have gotten weaker, and programs to help families through hard times have been dismantled. Usually when there is a big trend, there are a lot of factors going into it that are reinforcing what is happening. This, really, is no exception.”

Overall, CEPA researchers warned low-income students, independent of race, are becoming less and less a consideration in such privileged environments. Currently, almost 58 percent of all students enrolled at such top schools come from families found among the top quarter of income earners, while only 6 percent come from families in the bottom quartile.

For purposes of study consistency, researchers compared children from families in the 90th percentile of income to children from families in the lower ten percent range. The figures were composed from 2008, a time when top bracket families earned an average of $160,000 annually, while lower earning families averaged income of under $18,000.  

Using the University of Texas’s “Top 10 Percent” policy, which guarantees Texas students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class automatic admission into state-funded universities, as its test model the study also delved into the effectiveness of affirmative action admission policies in terms of increasing minority enrollment.

Later this year, the Supreme Court is slated to hear arguments in a case against the UT and whether such policies are consistent with the 2003 decision of Grutter v. Bollinger concerning race and college admissions. , which found that schools were permitted to use race as a limited factor in admissions.

In the meantime, researchers have concluded that such “top 10” policies stand to only moderately increase minority enrollments and only then if highly selective schools began considering top students from all across the nation and not just their own state, as is Texas’ current approach. Even more to the point, Reardon observed “such policies don’t address the other socioeconomic and racial factors that play into the likelihood of a black or Hispanic student enrolling in a highly selective school … and Texas’s policy only guarantees admission and does not address a student’s ability to pay or to otherwise have access to the school.”

As for solutions which may truly yield hope in stemming the tide, Reardon advocates in favor of early childhood education and prevention programs.
“The socioeconomic differences in literacy and math skills are already large before children enter kindergarten,” he said. “It’s likely to be easier to prevent them than to remedy them after children start school. But we should also work to make sure the elementary, middle and high schools are providing children with equal opportunities to learn once they enter school.”
Complete study findings are published as a chapter in the research periodical ‘Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances.’


Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.

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