The Best New Argument for Affirmative Action

White students are now more overrepresented at top U.S. colleges than in 1995.


Affirmative action fans, get ready to meet your new favorite talking point.

America's top colleges have always been pretty pasty white places. But you might have been under the impression that, over time, their campuses were coming to look a bit more like the country has a whole, that they were at least making some measurable, collective progress on the diversity front.

Not lately, it turns out. According to a surprising new report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, white students are now more overrepresented at the most selective U.S. colleges than they were in 1995.

Yep, that's right. Our top schools are even whiter, at least compared to the U.S. population as a whole, than when grunge was still big. 

Using Department of Education data, the Georgetown team pieced together enrollment statistics from the three most selective tiers of U.S. colleges, as ranked by Barron's, then compared them to Census figures on the the country's 18-to-24-year-old population. As shown in the graph below, white students went from being 9 percentage points overrepresented in 1995 to being 13 percentage points overrepresented in 2009. Hispanics, in contrast, became more severely under-represented, as their enrollment at top schools failed to keep pace with their population growth. Blacks remained a steady 8 points underrepresented over the period.* I suppose no progress is better than backwards progress.


Of course, in absolute terms, these top colleges are slightly (and I mean slightly) more diverse than they were fifteen or so years ago. And that's all fine and good. But if you're concerned about the role colleges and universities play in ensuring some amount of social mobility in this country, then absolute numbers don't mean much. What matters is how the population on campus stacks up against the country as a whole, since that's the measure of whether  minorities are getting access to high quality educations. And on that front, these schools are regressing.

Which brings us to the second depressing aspect of the Georgetown Center's report, the part that led its authors to title it "Separate and Unequal." On the whole, more blacks and Hispanics are in fact going to college than 18 years ago. The problem is that, as we've seen, they're not ending up at schools with high standards. Instead, they're heading to public, two and four-year open-enrollment colleges. As shown below, blacks are now over-represented at schools with come-one, come-all admissions policies, while whites are now under-represented. 


These open-enrollment schools do a wonderful public service with relatively few resources. But that's just it: they don't have an awful lot of money to spend on their students. As the Georgetown study notes, the 468 schools in the top three Barron's tiers spend, on average, $13,400 on instruction per student. At open-access schools, it's about $6,000. Partly as a result, their outcomes are often quite poor. Whereas the most selective institutions graduate about 82 percent of their students, the open-enrollment colleges graduate about 49 percent. Some of that comes down to the preparation of the undergraduates who enroll. But some of it clearly has to do with the quality of the institution. The study points out that blacks and Hispanics with above-average standardized test scores have a 73 percent graduation rate at selective schools, and a 40 percent graduation rate at open-enrollment institutions.

In short, white students are funneling into colleges where they're most likely to succeed while blacks and Hispanics are funneling into colleges where they're most likely to fail. Separate. Unequal.

One of the big questions that follows from these dim findings is whether more minority students could get into selective colleges if they applied. Some almost certainly could, but exactly how many is less clear. The report finds that there are roughly 111,000 black and Hispanic students a year who never go to a selective school, even though their standardized test scores suggest they would probably be able to graduate. The issue, as co-author Anthony Carnevale told me on the phone, is whether those scores would be good enough for admissions offices in the hunt for prestige. "If you're going to take the kids with the highest test scores, you're taking the rich kids." And usually, rich means white.

Affirmative action, practiced by top colleges today, clearly isn't even coming close to fixing the racial inequalities in our education system. But if anything, that means we need more of it,** not less.


*For the sake of readability, and because I think the most important contrast here is between whites and economically disadvantaged minorities, I left the Asian population off the chart. But for those interested, they have remained a steady 6 percent overrepresented at top colleges. In both 1995 and 2009, they were 4 percent of the 18-to-24 population and 10 percent of enrollees.

**And, for the sake of any education wonks out there, when I say more, I mean more affirmative action paired with better outreach to the fully qualified minorities who are being passed over, along with better (or at least smarter) funding for financial aid.