August 24, 2017; New York Times
A few weeks ago, the New York Times published the outcome of its review of enrollment patterns at 100 elite universities, public and private. The results suggest that civil rights advocates have a lot to be concerned about.
Last month, Carole Levine, writing about proposed changes in the Justice Department’s changing affirmative action enforcement strategy, summarized the ongoing debate about college and university admissions policies:
Affirmative action initiatives were developed to level the playing field for minorities and create a more equitable and diverse society. There are those, mostly on the right, who would say they are not now needed, and those in the civil rights movement who would say we have only just begun.
The Times looked at data collected by the U.S. Department of Education going back to 1980 and found that, after more than 35 years of affirmative action, Black and Latinx students were no better represented at the nation’s top colleges and universities. Enrollment of Black students remained relatively stable at six percent over this period; this leaves Black students significantly underrepresented, since they make up 15 percent of the overall student-age population. Though the absolute number of Latinx students has increased, that growth has not kept pace with the growing number of young Latinx people in our population, so they, too, have become even less well represented in these college classrooms. This picture is remarkably consistent across the Ivy League, elite liberal arts colleges, and flagship state universities.
Looking at a wider sampling of colleges and universities does show more progress, but the unique role played by elite schools as social and economic gatekeepers makes the disparity in their student bodies particularly important. At a time of growing separation between the very rich and the rest of the American population, the opportunities provided by a degree from an elite university are considerable.
The Times pointed at broader economic and social conditions as the cause for the paucity of minority students being qualified to attend these schools. “Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities, according to the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.” David Hawkins, an executive director at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, described the impact of these hurdles as “a cascading set of obstacles [that] all seem to contribute to a diminished representation of minority students in highly selective colleges.”
We know that this is not the complete story. Elite colleges and universities could enroll more minority students without changing their enrollment policies. Thousands of minority students meet these schools’ admission standards and yet are not being accepted. Research conducted by Dimitrios Halikias and Richard V. Reeves earlier this year noted, “An estimated 43,000 highly qualified, low-income students are not being admitted to the public universities that would benefit them the most.” This failure cannot be laid at the feet, as some have charged, of failing public schools. “Low-income students whose scores are equal or better than the average score of all current selective school students graduate at the same rate as well.” Many of these students are black or Latinx.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas explained in his dissent from a recent Supreme Court decision, “The Constitution abhors classifications based on race because every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provision of burdens and benefits, it demeans us all.” But when the only explanation for the disparity between different groups of Americans is race, does not the Constitution also find this to be abhorrent?
The high cost of attending these schools is a real barrier that can be overcome. Does not good social policy require that it be removed? Elite schools would seem to have the resources to provide the missing economic support these students will require. Are they not being aggressive enough in making these resources available? Are they not concerned that their student bodies do not reflect our country? Is it the lack of affirmative action pressure? Or are they and other affirmative action opponents happy that their student bodies look as they currently do?—Martin Levine