Is white privilege a factor in college admissions process? Study says yes

Black and Hispanic students see gaps in information that can determine their postsecondary education future.
By: | December 10, 2021
Adobe Stock

White privilege does exist among students who try to access information during the college applications process, according to a new study published by higher education consultancy The Art & Science Group.

The report, part of the agency’s Student Poll series conducted of 734 high school seniors who said they would like to attend four-year institutions next fall, reveals that both social capital and access are less likely for Black, Indigenous and People of Color going through the process.

“Despite efforts to increase access to a college education, college admissions offices still struggle to level the playing field for students within a system of privilege – racial and ethnic, financial and family aspiration,” study authors said. White students or those from high-income families have “larger choice sets and the ability to be more knowledgeable, selective and discerning.”

In fact, the vast majority of White students (68%) can count on friends and family to help guide them through the process, while only around a third of Black students can. In turn Black students consider far fewer institution choices (3.2 to 4.0) than White and Asian students. One factor that may have played a part this year were on-campus tours, which more White students leveraged (38%) than all other students (23%). First-generation students also struggle to see the same information as their counterparts, at around 10% less. They also took part in far fewer tours.

“To attract, enroll and serve a more diverse student population, colleges and universities will need to make strategies aimed at leveling the playing field, making education more accessible to students who do not enjoy the same privilege,” authors wrote. “In communicating with students from traditionally underserved populations, they are less likely to rely on familiar social networks and seek out information from other sources. Colleges will need to find more way to personalize interactions.”

Because Asian and White students have more complete information, authors say they are twice as likely to be able to differentiate between their top two college choices. First-generation students also struggle to delineate between their first two picks of institution by the same amount, likely because their parents simply never experienced college first-hand. Even students whose parents had some college experience were able to make the same distinctions as non-first-generation students.

The Art & Science Group stresses in its report how institutions intent on pushing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives must assist these groups.

“Colleges and universities will need to find more creative ways to reach students who are less likely to have social capital and work harder to ensure that these students understand what is distinctive about the institution and why these distinctions should matter to them as they choose to apply.”

Speaking of DEI, the group conducted a similar survey of high school students in November and the results were pretty clear: the majority of students (76%) said they would be more apt to apply to institutions that had solid DEI initiatives, with campus safety also a concern. And those efforts cut across all racial groups, but most strongly among Black and Hispanic students at 91% and 86%, respectively.