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A good-bad-good news story

Date Published: 08/08/2013

Author: Maureen Ramirez & Dane Smith

Most Minnesotans know something about the great civil rights and racial integration struggles of the last century, and many of us no doubt think or hope we are past the worst of it.

But we also know that as racial equality ever so gradually improved, and as legal discrimination and official segregation began to be banished, white privilege took different dimensions.

We know, for instance, that as African Americans, Latinos and other people of color migrated to urban areas, many whites moved  to suburbs and exurbs and to gated communities. Racial fear and animosity was only part of that story, and other factors played a part in the suburbanization of the United States. But businesses and governments were to blame for policies that had the effect of creating and maintaining separate and unequal neighborhoods, or in effect, economic and racial segregation.

The same phenomenon — affluent white privilege subtly reasserting itself — appears to be happening in higher education, according to a report issued recently by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. The study likely will reverberate in education policy and social justice circles for years to come.

But there is some very good news in the report: Between 1995 and 2009, new freshman enrollment at all postsecondary institutions in the United States increased by 107 percent for Hispanics, by 73 percent for African Americans and by 15 percent for whites. These overall growth rates reflect  both a rapidly diversifying population and some catching up on educational participation by communities that are still far behind in postsecondary completion.

The distressing news is that this flow was highly differentiated by race between the elite or most selective four-year colleges, and the open-access two-year and four-year schools and colleges.

According to the Georgetown report, 82 percent of new white freshman enrollments were at the 468 most selective four-year colleges (think of Harvard or Stanford  or Carleton). Meanwhile, 68 percent of new African American and 72 percent of new Hispanic freshman enrollments were at open-access  colleges (think of Minneapolis Community and Technical College).

Another way to look at the disparity: while whites now comprise only 62 percent of the college-age population, they represent 75 percent of the enrollment at the most prestigious colleges.

This is important for reasons beyond the prestige factor and the fact that the most selective and elite schools provide networks of affluent alums and other connections that give their graduates an effective advantage over others in the competition for new jobs and promotions.

The Georgetown study finds that the more selective colleges spend up to five times as much per student on instruction as open-access colleges—and their graduation rate is 82 percent, compared to 49 percent at open-access schools. The latter are mostly public and have suffered severe cutbacks from their state governments, particularly in Minnesota, as private endowments at elite colleges have soared. Many more resources are available for individualized help at the selective schools, complementing the other privileges enjoyed by more affluent families.

“Higher spending in the most selective colleges leads to higher graduation rates, greater access to graduate and professional schools, and better economic outcomes in the labor market, when comparing with white, African American and Hispanic students who are equally qualified but attend less competitive schools,” the report states.

In fact, students with high SAT scores (1200 or greater) who attend selective colleges graduate at a much higher rate (87%) than students with similarly high SAT scores at open access schools (58%). Even more notable, students with lower SAT scores (1000-1099) who attend selective colleges also graduate at a much higher rate (73%) than the high-scoring students at open access schools.

The racial enrollment disparity still exists for equally prepared college entrants, based on high school grades. For instance, 30 percent of African Americans and Latinos with a high-school GPA of 3.5 or higher go to two-year colleges, compared to 22 percent for white students.

It must be noted that this study did not address the middle tier of institutions, which, as defined by the study, includes MnSCU four-year universities and many of our private colleges.

Middle tier and two-year institutions play a critical role in the higher education landscape here in Minnesota. The last legislative session brought particularly good news in this area, with a welcome focus on increased career and college readiness for all Minnesota students and increased investments in higher education. These new efforts are key to making sure that Minnesota’s education systems work for all Minnesota students to create the talent development pipeline we need for our future economy.

New efforts are under way, for instance, to provide more career and college readiness planning in high schools and as early as middle school. Crucially important is a new requirement for all juniors in Minnesota public schools to take a college entrance exam, something that can be both a financial and procedural obstacle for many students. And middle-schoolers and high school students will take additional career and college readiness exams as part of their planning process.

A two-year tuition freeze and an increase in the Minnesota State Grants program means students’ dollars will stretch a little further and make completion and graduation more likely. Additionally, changes to the state grant formula will mean that part-time students won’t be penalized for working, and undocumented students will be eligible for the first time for Minnesota State Grants. More students getting more financial aid for higher education should help more students of color attend selective schools, with improved odds from start to finish in the process.

On the other end of the pipeline, Minnesota’s substantial  investments in early childhood education scholarships and all-day kindergarten will get kids started toward a postsecondary path from the very beginning.

These new efforts and investments are a good start, but as the study notes, additional attention needs to be paid to admissions policies in higher education. The authors acknowledge the difficulties of race-based admission policies, especially given an adversarial political climate and recent court decisions against race-based affirmative action. And they concur that “new efforts to reduce the racial gap at the K-12 level might work over the long run.” But the final words in the report are these: “ultimately there is no better way to guarantee a certain level of racial diversity than by employing race per se at some juncture in the selection process.”

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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, August 8, 2013. 

Maureen Ramirez is the policy & research director and Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice,  a policy organization focused on expanding economic prosperity for all Minnesotans.

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