The most selective colleges have raised the bar for admission over decades in which more black and Hispanic students have gotten into the game, leaving such institutions as out of reach for many minority applicants as they had been decades ago, a new study found.
As a result, long-term improvement in the academic preparation of black and Hispanic students and growth in the share entering postsecondary education has not translated into their increased representation at highly selective colleges. Instead, it has left the nation with a higher-education system in which rising numbers of such students are channeled into less-competitive colleges while the most-selective institutions become increasingly associated with students who are relatively wealthy and, for the more part, white or Asian American, the study revealed.
Although the nation "is clearly on track" to eliminate race-linked disparities in access to postsecondary education as a whole, "we must attend to the possibility that stratification—both in postsecondary access and in the labor-market outcomes that derive from this access—is simply being shifted to other sources within the system," says a paper on the study's findings that is scheduled to be presented Thursday at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.
The academic preparation of black and Hispanic students has increased over time, but "just as they improve their own qualifications, what is being asked of them by our colleges is increasing," Michael Bastedo, one of the paper's co-authors, said Tuesday in an interview.
"These students cannot keep up with rising demands and what is being accomplished by other students who are competing to get into the same colleges," Mr. Bastedo said. "It is just that every step of the way, students from other backgrounds are one step ahead."
Mr. Bastedo, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, conducted the study with Rob Bielby, Ozan Jaquette, and Julie Posselt, all graduate students at that institution. They based their analysis on data from several federal studies, examining the long-term data on students who were high school seniors in 1972, 1982, 1992, or 2004, and who ended up graduating that year or fairly soon after.
Much of the previous research on college-going has looked at whether students went to college at all, or has broken down the types of colleges in which students enrolled into simple categories such as "two-year institutions" or "four-year institutions." The four Michigan researchers took a more refined approach. They borrowed the institutional classifications used in Barron's Profiles of American Colleges in examining where students went to college, lumping together the colleges Barron's classifies as "highly competitive" or "most competitive" because they did not believe the "most competitive" category included enough students to be examined on its own.
Steps Forward, Steps Back
In analyzing the federal data, the researchers identified several trends that appeared to hold promise when it comes to increasing black and Hispanic access to the most-selective category of institutions.
Among them, highly selective colleges appear to be giving more weight to applicants' involvement in extracurricular activities as part of "holistic" admissions processes intended to increase diversity and differentiate among the academically qualified.
Although having held extracurricular leadership positions did not appear to significantly bolster the selective-college enrollment prospects of students who were high-school seniors in 1992, for the seniors of 2004, having held such positions was strongly, positively correlated with selective-college enrollment.
In every racial category, the proportion of students enrolled at highly selective colleges who reported having held extracurricular leadership positions in high school more than doubled from the 1992 to 2004 cohorts. It rose from 35 percent to 74 percent for black students, from 30 percent to 69 percent for white students, from 22 percent to 65 percent for Asian-American students, and from 19 percent to 54 percent for students who were Hispanic.
Moreover, black and Hispanic students with stellar academic credentials appear to have better odds of being admitted to highly selective colleges than ever. When the researchers looked at the admissions prospects of all students who are highly academically qualified, black students were no longer at a disadvantage, as had been the case in the past, and those who came from economically advantaged backgrounds and had high SAT scores had the highest odds of enrollment at selective colleges of any population studied. Hispanic students with high academic qualifications also were at an advantage over white and Asian American students with comparable academic profiles.
But both black and Hispanic students, as a whole, are actually less likely to enroll in highly selective colleges than they previously had been. Although their academic preparation has improved, on average, the academic preparation of white and Asian American students also has improved, enough to keep race-linked gaps in preparation in place.
Students with high qualifications are more likely to seek admission to the most-selective institutions that will accept them than they had been in the past, increasing competition for seats at such colleges. And, for the most part, highly selective colleges appear to be giving more weight to high SAT scores and high grades than they had previously, putting their institutions out of the reach of some students who might have gotten in a decade or two ago.
Those black and Hispanic students who do get into such institutions tend to be wealthier than those who enrolled in them in past decades. As of 1972, 9 percent of both black and Hispanic students going on to highly selective colleges came from the most socioeconomically advantaged fourth of society; as of 2004, 35 percent of Hispanic and 49 percent of black students at such institutions came from such a socioeconomic background.
Although rising wealth in minority communities probably accounts for much of that shift, it is likely that rising admissions standards also played a role, Mr. Bastedo said. (The proportion of white students at such institutions who hail from the wealthiest fourth of society has remained unchanged at about 70 percent throughout the period the researchers studied.)
"It seems likely that schools are using enrollment-management techniques that allow them to diversify their classes racially and ethnically and still bring in students who can pay tuition," Mr. Bastedo said. "This allows institutions to have their cake and eat it, too—they can have a racially and ethnically diverse class and still meet their financial targets."