Despite decades of affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago, according to data available from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The share of black freshmen at elite schools is virtually unchanged since 1980. Black students are just 6 percent of freshmen but 15 percent of college-age Americans.
More Hispanics are attending elite schools, but the increase has not kept up with the huge growth of young Hispanics in the United States, so the gap between students and the college-age population has widened.
The analysis includes 100 schools ranging from public flagship universities to the Ivy League. For both blacks and Hispanics, the trend extends back to at least 1980, the earliest year that fall enrollment data was available from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Blacks and Hispanics have gained ground at less selective colleges and universities but not at the highly selective institutions, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,700 colleges and universities.
The courts have ruled that colleges and universities can consider race or ethnicity “as one element in a holistic admissions policy, so it’s something that can be considered, but it’s not a magic bullet,” he said.
Affirmative action increases the numbers of black and Hispanic students at many colleges and universities, but experts say that persistent underrepresentation often stems from equity issues that begin earlier.
Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities, according to the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Black students make up 9 percent of the freshmen at Ivy League schools but 15 percent of college-age Americans, roughly the same gap as in 1980. (A category for multiracial students, introduced in 2008, has slightly reduced the share of black students.)
Black students remain underrepresented in a number of flagships in states with a large share of college-age residents who are black.
For example, in Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina, blacks represent about a third or more of each state’s college-age population but less than 15 percent of the freshman enrollment at the flagship university.
At the University of South Carolina’s Columbia campus, black freshman enrollment has declined significantly over the last 15 years. Students on campus have protested racial inequalities.
Many public flagship universities draw students from the state or region, rather than the entire country. While black enrollment at schools like West Virginia University and the University of Nebraska is low, it is on par with the state’s demographics.
“There’s such a distinct disadvantage to begin with,” said David Hawkins, an executive director at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “A cascading set of obstacles all seem to contribute to a diminished representation of minority students in highly selective colleges.”