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DAN THOMASSON: Top colleges struggle with diversity

by on August 18, 2013 1:20 AM

Most of America’s select institutions of higher education are straining to find a sustained path to diversity. But according to a new study from Georgetown University, they are failing.

In fact, the study concludes that the system is becoming more polarized racially, with African-American and Hispanic students settling for community colleges and those without access restrictions.

Far more students graduate from the top 468 colleges and universities than those who attend the open-access, two- and four-year institutions. The result of that is a $2.1 million edge in lifetime earnings. The report stated that graduates of the select schools earn an average of $67,000 a year a decade after they graduate, which is $18,000 more than those from nonselective schools.

“The American post-secondary system increasingly has become a dual system of racially separate pathways, even as overall minority access (to that system) has grown dramatically,” one of the report’s authors said.

More than eight out of 10 white students attended the selective institutions, while only 13 percent of the African-American and Hispanic students did. So while enrollment doubled for Hispanics and climbed 73 percent for blacks between 1995 and 2009, diversity suffered a major setback.

As a trustee of one of the select institutions and a member of the enrollment management committee, I don’t find any of this at all surprising. Trying to diversify a small-enrollment school (1,100 students), even one as distinguished as Franklin College, is not only difficult but can be extremely costly. This 180-year-old Indiana private liberal arts college, considered in the mid-range as far as cost, fails to attract a sizable percentage of black or Hispanic students despite sustained efforts to do so.

The main reason is money. Simply put, tuition, room and board still are too expensive for inner-city students and first-generation Hispanic students who may also be uncomfortable with its pastoral setting despite its close proximity to a major metropolitan area. While most of the school’s students pay less than the stated amount, the costs are still too high without almost total subsidization — in other words, a full ride. Unlike those Ivy League and sub-Ivy institutions with very large endowments, Franklin and a huge number of quality schools can’t afford to buy diversity.

Even if the mounting tuition and associated costs of residential campuses weren’t a problem, a large infusion of cash for upgrading capital projects and faculties would add an untold cost to improve the open-access schools. It also would not be inexpensive for the selective schools, either.

According to the report, 30 percent of African-American and Hispanic students who had an A average in high school currently end up in community colleges, compared with 22 percent of white students. It stated that each year more than 100,000 African-American and Hispanic students who graduate in the top half of their high school class fail to win a degree from either a two- or four-year institution within eight years. If they had attended one of the 468 selective schools, 73 percent of them would have graduated.

Anthony Carnevale, co-author of the report, told the Washington Post that “it is a good-news, bad-news story. Access is up and inequality is growing a lot with it. And the two are intimately connected. The higher education system is colorblind but in fact operates at least in part as a systematic barrier to opportunity for many blacks and Hispanics ... tracked into overcrowded and underfunded colleges where they are less likely to develop fully.”

The report did not touch on the fact that racial polarization is present at schools with large budgets and programs dedicated to diversity. At some of these institutions, African-American students, for instance, elect their own prom queens, have their own student unions and even create their own yearbooks, all completely at odds with the goals of desegregation.

The Georgetown report is discouraging also for more income equality needed to raise the living standards of minority Americans. Franklin College, with an already superlative record of preparing students for medical school, among other things, is planning a state-of-the-art science complex that should increase its appeal. Its administrators know that would be enhanced by diversity. The odds against that occurring, not only for Franklin but also its peers, seem long.

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