Leveling the higher ed playing field

How public institutions became more racially and financially stratified
By: | Issue: June, 2019
May 20, 2019

Martin Van Der Werf, associate director for editorial and postsecondary policy at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Black and Latino students’ college attendance rates are rising, while the overall percentage of white college students is declining. Yet you won’t see much evidence of that on a tour of selective colleges, says Martin Van Der Werf, associate director for editorial and postsecondary policy at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. While inordinate numbers of white students attend selective four-year public colleges, disproportionate numbers of black and Latino students go to open-access public colleges, most of which are community colleges where the highest credential is an associate degree.
Van Der Werf is co-author of “Our Separate & Unequal Public Colleges: How Public Colleges Reinforce White Racial Privilege and Marginalize Black and Latino Students” (UBmag .me/cew). “We believe selective colleges leave out large proportions of the population under the assumption that those people won’t be successful,” he says. “They will, but they have to get in first.”

In the report, you wrote: “Admissions test scores are a means of laundering race and class inequality behind a scientific façade of quantitative metrics.” Are people of color excluded because they don’t do well on the tests?

Black and Latino students tend to go to high schools that don’t prepare them as well as the schools that are predominantly attended by white students. As a result, they score lower, in general, on the standardized tests.

We know, for example, that the mean SAT score for white students is 1118; for black students, it’s 941; and for Latino students, it’s 990. So there’s quite a bit of difference there.

The fascinating thing about the data is that despite all of those roadblocks and barriers, there are still 341,000 black and Latino students who score above average on the SAT. Yet only 65,000 enroll in a selective college.

For many, 1000 might seem like a pretty low SAT score, but the chances are really good that people with such a score will graduate, even from a selective college. But they can’t graduate from a selective college if they never enroll in one.

Admissions officers shouldn’t consider race in their decisions, but when test scores correlate as they do, it almost seems as if they can’t avoid it.

There’s a lot of conflicting data about that. Obviously, you can’t admit to considering race when it has been outlawed. But do colleges consider it even though they’re not supposed to? There’s some literature that would suggest that they use proxies for it.

What kind of proxies?

They might look at, say, where the student went to high school. If I know that a high school is, say, 90% Latino, chances are that my applicant is Latino. And if the candidate comes from a ZIP code that is 90% Latino, chances are that my applicant is Latino. So whereas you may not know whether the student is Latino or black, you can surmise it pretty successfully in many cases.

Everyone is paying for public universities, so everyone should have an equal chance to attend them.

Do selective schools do enough to recruit people of color?

Well, pretty much all selective public universities have outreach into minority communities. There are recruiters that go to high schools that have primarily minority students. They are pursuing avenues to enroll more minority students. But when you look at the data, one has to believe that they could be doing more. When you have a state where the white population at the selective college is twice what the white college-age population is, you have to think that they could probably be doing more to attract more minority students.

Florida is the exception in your data.

Florida is an exception for Latino students, but less so for black students. Florida has done a great job of making selective colleges available to the Latino community. Latinos are, as a community, between Cubans and Puerto Ricans, much more established in Florida. In some cases, families have been in Florida for three or four generations. But in other states, many Latinos are first-generation college students, so other states have not been able to establish the same kind of pattern that Florida has.

You write that the SAT and ACT are given more weight than they actually deserve as predictors of completion and success after college.

Well, the folks at the SAT and the ACT are always trying to improve the tests. But the data shows that the SAT reflects, more than anything, the parents’ level of educational achievement and family income. So the people who will get the highest SAT scores are more likely to be white because white people are more educated and have higher incomes than either Latino or black people do.

But you can’t dismiss the SAT absolutely. It does have some predictive qualities. For example, if I know what high school a person attended and in which ZIP code they grew up, and that person scored well above the median score for that community—even if it was below the SAT score of most of my incoming class—that’s the kind of student that a selective public college ought to admit. That’s a student who is overachieving and is very likely to be successful at a selective college.

How do we change this? Does it start with the schools or is it something that needs to be legislated?

We have a situation now in which we send our best-prepared students to our best colleges and give them the most support, and they graduate in much greater numbers. Meanwhile, we send our least qualified students to our least supported schools. Not surprisingly, they have the poorest graduation numbers.

We think that the answer is to take a two-pronged approach. One is, as I’ve said, to give more students, particularly qualified black and Latino students, the opportunity to attend selective colleges because chances are very good that they will graduate. That will have the net effect of improving equity. Everyone is paying for public universities, so everyone should have an equal chance to attend them.

Read: 4 ways to take the lead on diversity


Second, we know that not everyone gets to go to a selective college. If they did, they wouldn’t be selective, right? So if the majority of students will still go to open-access colleges, we think that we should flip the funding model and send more resources to the schools that need them the most.

Selective colleges will continue to have high graduation rates. But if we want more students to graduate from the open-access colleges, we’ve got to send more resources to them, and catch students who are about to fail, bring them to success and get them to complete.

And we’ll do that by having more counseling, more full-time faculty members and more support systems for such students. Why? Because they are atypical college students, and we need to give them atypical resources instead of just the typical resources that we’re giving them now.

Tim Goral is senior editor