"White Flight Goes to College,"by Jeff Stohl & Anthony P. Carnevale September/October 2013 issue of Poverty & Race
White flight from the center city to better neighborhood schools in the leafy green suburbs has finally arrived on the nation’s ivy-covered college campuses. The racial and ethnic stratification in educational opportunity entrenched in the nation’s K-12 education system has faithfully reproduced itself across the full range of American colleges and universities.
African Americans’ and Hispanics’ access to postsecondary education over the past 15 years is a good news/ bad news story. Though African Americans and Hispanics scored big gains in access to postsecondary education, both groups are losing ground in their move up to the most selective colleges relative to their growing population shares.
The absolute numbers of African Americans and Hispanics going on to postsecondary institutions have increased markedly, but whites, African Americans and Hispanics are on separate and unequal pathways.
Whites are abandoning the open-access institutions and moving up into the selective college tiers and gaining the advantages those schools provide.
Affluent white students, higher tuitions, and prestige-seeking four-year colleges are all moving to the top tiers of selectivity, while lower-income minority students are left with the less prestigious, lower-spending, poorly funded open-access institutions.
Similarly, the larger growth in college seats has been at schools now in the most selective tiers, as compared with open-access colleges.
The most telling metrics of racial polarization in postsecondary education are comparisons of white, African-American and Hispanic enrollments to their respective shares of the college-age population. Whites have increased their enrollment share in the top 468 colleges relative to their share of the college-age population.
Over the same period, the enrollment shares of African Americans and Hispanics in the top 468 colleges declined relative to their shares of the college-age population.
Over the same 15 years, the African-American and Hispanic share of enrollment in the 3,250 open-access colleges increased relative to their share of the college-age population.
These trends show that the higher education system is more and more complicit as a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations. The higher education system is colorblind —in theory—but in fact operates, at least in part, as a systematic barrier to opportunity for many African Americans and Hispanics, large numbers of whom are qualified but tracked into overcrowded and underfunded colleges, where they are less likely to develop fully or to graduate.
The tracking of white students into the top-tier colleges perpetuates greater rates of white college completion, especially at the elite colleges. Consequently, more college completion among white parents brings higher earnings that fuel the intergenerational reproduction of privilege by providing more highly educated parents the means to pass their educational advantages on to their children. Higher earnings buy more expensive housing in the suburbs with the best schools and peer support for educational attainment. The synergy between the growing economic value of education and the increased sorting by housing values makes parental education the strongest predictor of a child’s educational attainment and future earnings. As a result, the country also has the least intergenerational educational and income mobility among advanced nations.
The American postsecondary system increasingly has become a dual system of racially separate pathways, even as overall minority access to the postsecondary system has grown dramatically. The dual pathways in postsecondary education are not only racially separate but they produce unequal results, even among equally qualified students. The authors find that preparation for higher education matters in allocating access and success at the most selective 468 colleges, but it’s not the whole story. Differences in access, completion and earnings persist even among equally qualified whites, African Americans and Hispanics.
This polarization of the postsecondary system matters because resources matter. The 468 most selective colleges spend anywhere from two to almost five times as much per student as the open-access schools. 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, even compared with white, African-American and Hispanic students who are equally qualified but attend less competitive schools.
Access to the most selective 468 four-year colleges—and their greater completion rates—is especially important to African Americans and Hispanics, in part because attaining a BA is an important threshold for racial equality in earnings.
College readiness is important in explaining low completion rates, but preparation is not the whole story. Virtually all of the increase in college dropouts and the slowdown in completions are concentrated in open-access colleges, in substantial part because they are too crowded and underfunded. This dynamic leads to significant loss of talent among both minorities and lower income students.
So, what can be done? In combination, both race- and class-based affirmative action can ensure that highly qualified African-American, Hispanic and lower-income students gain access to well-funded and selective colleges that lead to elite careers.
But affirmative action is not enough to make more than a dent in the larger systematic racial and class bias in the core economic and educational mechanisms. Affirmative action, whether it is race- or class-based or some combination of the two, can help out those who strive and overcome the odds, yet does relatively little to change the odds themselves.
There are always African-American, Hispanic and working-class strivers who beat the odds, but for the mass of disadvantaged people it is the odds that count. The odds are stacked against African-American, Latino and low-income students. Disadvantage, like privilege, comes from a complex network of mutually reinforcing economic and educational mechanisms that only can be dealt with through a multifaceted economic and educational policy response. These economic and educational mechanisms are colorblind and class-blind in theory but not in fact. They are nested together in ways that make their combined negative effects mutually reinforcing, resilient and superficially legitimate as racial and ethnic barriers to opportunity.
The education system is colorblind in theory. In fact, the education system operates, at least in part, as a systematic barrier to college for many minorities who finish high school unprepared for college. Polarization by race and ethnicity in the nation’s postsecondary system has become the capstone for K-12 inequality and the complex economic and social mechanisms that create it. The postsecondary system mimics and magnifies the racial and ethnic inequality in educational preparation it inherits from the K-12 system and then projects this inequality into the labor market.
Jeff Stohl is Research Director of the Georgetown Univ. Ctr. on Education & the Workforce.
Both can be reached at cew. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anthony P. Carnevale is Director of the Georgetown Univ. Ctr. on Education & the Workforce. He has served as senior staff in both the U.S. Senate & House and was Political Director for AFSCME.
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