New report finds diversity gains during race-conscious admissions ‘were incremental at best’

While the Supreme Court’s decision to end race-conscious admissions has dominated recent discussions about college diversity, a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) urges stakeholders to “zoom out” and consider that affirmative action led to limited improvement in representation at selective colleges while historically marginalized students continued to disproportionately attend less selective schools.

Progress Interrupted: Evaluating a Decade of Demographic Change at Selective and Open-Access Institutions Prior to the End of Race-Conscious Affirmative Action is a retrospective analysis of demographic trends at highly selective and open access institutions from 2009 to 2019, a period of time when race could be considered in admissions and before COVID-19 pandemic-induced enrollment changes, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports. Selective colleges are those defined as “most competitive,” “highly competitive,” and “very competitive,” by Barron’s selectivity index, while open access schools are those that are “less competitive” or “non-competitive” or four-year (or under four-year) institutions unranked by Barron’s.

CEW found that even as of 2019, just 12%, 14%, and 16% of American Indian/Alaska Native, Black/African American, and Hispanic/Latino students, respectively, attended selective colleges, compared with 32% and 45% of white and Asian/Pacific Islander students, respectively.  

“A small number of selective colleges are launchpads to positions of influence, but these institutions remain highly segregated by race/ethnicity and class,” CEW Director and lead author Jeff Strohl said in a press release. “Open-access institutions educate the vast majority of college students but, unfortunately, have the fewest resources and the lowest success rates. This chasm of inequity undermines the goal of the American postsecondary system to serve as an engine of opportunity for those who need it most.”

How much did demographics change?

Between 2009 and 2019, there was “little fundamental change” in enrollment representation at selective colleges and universities, and small changes in the share of historically marginalized students at those institutions largely mirrored changes in the overall population. In 2019, Latine, Black, and Indigenous Americans collectively made up 37% of college-aged adults in the U.S. but just 21% of the students enrolled at selective colleges. In comparison, white and Asian American/Pacific Islander students were 60% of the college-age population that year, but made up 73% of students enrolled at selective colleges.

Socioeconomic diversity, meanwhile, fell during the decade spanning 2009-19. Overall college enrollment of Pell Grant recipients reached its peak in 2009 before experiencing an overall decline, primarily driven by decreased enrollment at open access institutions. At highly selective colleges, enrollment of Pell Grant recipients rose slightly, but not enough to offset losses at open access colleges. In 2019, less than one in four students at the most selective colleges were Pell Grant recipients. 

Importance of expanding access to higher education

“Enrollment disparities between selective and open-access institutions matter because outcomes matter,” said Emma Nyhof, report co-author and policy analyst at CEW. “At the median, selective institutions spend more than twice as much on student services and academic support per student and have more full-time faculty per student than open-access colleges. These factors contribute to higher graduation rates and better opportunities for their graduates.” Selective institutions have significantly higher graduation rates (78%) than open access institutions (37%). 

While researchers emphasized the importance of increasing access to the nation’s most selective colleges, they also noted that improving outcomes at open access institutions would have an even greater impact on a larger number of students and society at large. Increasing state and local investment in K-12 education, in wraparound support for students, and in open access institutions can help produce more equitable outcomes. 

“​​An all-one-system approach that included all of these improvements would pave the way toward a more just society where equal opportunities would be available to all, regardless of their race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or the zip code they grew up in,” says the report. 

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