Was affirmative action overrated? This study implies it is

The analysis, "Progress Interrupted," observed the changing enrollment rates of white, Black/African American, Asian American/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic/Latino students from 2009 to 2019.

College leaders aired their frustration over the fall of affirmative action last summer, and admissions officers everywhere were predominantly against its erasure. While race-conscious admissions practices were touted to help colleges and universities increase the diversity of their incoming class sizes, their actual contribution was marginal at best, according to a new retrospective analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).

“Much has been written about how the nation’s most selective colleges will struggle to retain diversity now that the Supreme Court has struck down race-conscious affirmative action,” writes CEW Director and lead author Jeff Strohl. “However, a narrow focus on admissions trends at a small number of highly selective schools misses the fact that the vast majority of students are not served by these institutions.”

The analysis, “Progress Interrupted,” observed the changing enrollment rates of white, Black/African American, Asian American/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic/Latino students from 2009 to 2019. CEW did not include data from 2020 onward after observing the seismic impact the pandemic had on students’ enrollment patterns.

Researchers boxed institutions’ changing enrollment rates into two categories: selective and open-access institutions. They found it particularly important to divvy up the results this way because selective institutions were found to produce the most successful outcomes for students. Specifically, the graduation rate at selective institutions was 78%, more than double that of the open-access schools. Furthermore, graduation rate disparities by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic standing are comparatively smaller.

“A small number of selective colleges are launchpads to positions of influence, but these institutions remain highly segregated by race/ethnicity and class,” Strohl wrote.

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Disproportionate admission rates at selective colleges

White and Asian American students comprised 73% of the share of selective college enrollment despite the fact they only made up 60% of the college-age population. As the college-age population of Asian American/Pacific Islander students grew by 55%, their enrollment at selective institutions grew by 34%. While the population of college-aged white students decreased by 12%, their enrollment remained stable. Overall, the proportion of these students enrolled at selective institutions exceeds the rate at which they make up the total college-age population.

On the other hand, Black, Native American and Hispanic/Latino students comprised 37% of the college-aged population but only made up 21% of selective college enrollment by 2019. Hispanic/Latino students experienced the greatest increase, with 50,000 students joining the ranks of the country’s best college offerings. While Hispanic/Latino students nearly doubled their enrollment numbers in 10 years, Native American numbers declined, and the number of Black students to join these institutions only increased by 5,000.

Mild representation from Pell-eligible students

The proportion of selective colleges enrolling students eligible for the Pell Grant grew. However, the increase was meager and was largely offset by a large drop-off at open-access institutions. Less than a quarter of selective colleges’ students were Pell-eligible in 2019.

“The American postsecondary system tends to provide the highest-quality education to those who need it least,” writes Strohl, clarifying, “students who are primarily wealthier than the median and who attended well-resourced high schools that smooth the transition into the most-selective colleges.”

The silver lining for our neediest students

While the country’s most selective institutions have shown a deficiency in enrolling diverse classes, higher education has a chance to increase their success at open-access institutions, wrote Catherine Morris, report co-author and senior writer/editor at CEW.

“[I]mproving outcomes at open-access institutions—through increased state and local funding, as well as wraparound support services for students that begin in the K12 system—could positively impact a much larger share of students and, ultimately, society as a whole.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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