Minority Enrollment: Black And Hispanic Students Underrepresented At Highly Selective Colleges, Stanford Study Finds

July 17, 2012

Black and Hispanic students remain significantly underrepresented in the most selective colleges, according to a new report.

The study, released by Stanford University's Center for Education Policy Analysis, analyzed race, income and enrollment patterns at top-tier universities from 1982 to 2004.

Researchers found that as recently as 2004, white students were five times as likely as black students to enroll in a highly selective college, and two to three times as likely to gain admission -- even after accounting for income differences between black and white families. White students were also three times as likely as Hispanic students to enroll in a selective college.

According to the study, the racial disparities in enrollment at highly selective colleges increased from 1982-2004, and even though there is a lack of more recent, comparable data, it is reasonable to infer that these patterns have not drastically improved in the past eight years.

Additionally, low-income students -- independent of race -- were found to be dramatically underrepresented in highly selective institutions. Almost 58 percent of the students enrolled in these universities come from families in the top quartile of the income distribution, while only 6 percent come from families in the bottom quartile of the income distribution.

CEPA researchers also examined the Texas Top 10 Percent rule, which guarantees Texas students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class automatic admission to all state-funded universities. Simulation results showed that while applying similar policies to selective schools could promote racial and socioeconomic diversity among admitted students, such policies are unlikely to increase the proportion of black and Hispanic students enrolled in highly selective colleges. This is due to the fact that economic constraints and preferences of some minority students to attend racially diverse colleges lead to racial differences in enrollment rates among those admitted to highly selective schools.

The study’s authors, who include Stanford researcher Sean Reardon, point out that racial disparity in access to the most selective institutions cannot be attributed to a widening racial gap in academic preparation, because such gaps have actually narrowed in the last four decades, albeit slowly.
“All else being equal, we would expect these narrowing achievement gaps to lead to a corresponding narrowing of the racial enrollment gaps in highly-selective colleges and university, but the data do not show such a trend,” the study reads.

The authors conclude that the growing racial enrollment gap must be driven by changes in college application-admission-enrollment decision processes -- not by changes in the relative academic preparation of white and minority students.

In February, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the University of Texas’ affirmative action program, which is used in assessing applicants who would not be automatically admitted under the "Top 10 Percent" rule.

In Fisher v. University of Texas, Abigail Noel Fisher claims that she was unconstitutionally denied admission because she is white. The university asserts that the use of race in its admissions process is indistinguishable from the University of Michigan Law School practices that the Supreme Court approved in 2003.

Fisher v. University of Texas could be argued -- but not decided -- come fall.