Top Colleges Don’t Represent America’s Diversity. How Bad Is It?



Even after 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 a New York Times analysis.

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, as the chart below shows.

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 Times 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.

“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.”

The Ivy League

 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.)

At all eight schools, white enrollment declined as Asian enrollment increased. In recent years, the growth of Asian enrollment has slowed at some schools, and some Asian-American students say they are being held to a higher standard.

The number of Hispanic and black freshmen on the University of California campuses declined immediately after California’s affirmative action ban took effect, especially at the most sought-after campuses, said Stephen Handel, associate vice president for undergraduate admissions. The system put the ban in place in 1998.

Even now, both Hispanics and blacks are least represented at Berkeley, the most selective campus. On seven campuses, Hispanics now make up a quarter or more of the freshmen, but that’s still far below their share of the college-age population in the state, which is close to 50 percent.

“Despite the progress the U.C. has made in assembling a more diverse student body, a lot of work remains to be done so that all U.C. campuses reflect the true diversity of the state,” Mr. Handel said in an email.

Top Liberal Arts Colleges

Over all, the share of black and Hispanic students at liberal arts colleges is similar to that at other top schools. Both blacks and Hispanics have gained ground in a handful of colleges, such as Amherst and Pomona.

Other Top Universities

Blacks and Hispanics remain underrepresented at other top universities, even as the share of white students at many of these schools has dropped, in some cases below 50 percent. The largest growth has often been among Asian students.

For example, the share of white freshmen at Rice University in Houston, which was exclusively white until the mid-1960s, declined to 42 percent in 2015 from 87 percent in 1980. Meanwhile, the share of Asian students rose to 30 percent in 2015 from 3 percent in 1980.

Public Flagship Universities

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 freshman enrollment at schools like West Virginia University and the University of Nebraska are low, they are on par with the college-age population in those states.

Notes: Data in charts are for undergraduates enrolled in the fall for the first time at four-year universities that grant degrees. From 1980 to 1993, data for students whose race or ethnicity was unknown has been redistributed across other groups.

Students whose race is unknown and international students are excluded from totals. The multiracial category, which was introduced in 2008, and the Native American category are shown when either group is ever above 5 percent of total enrollment.

Enrollment for each racial and ethnic group is reported by the schools, and may be incorrect or not add up to 100 percent. Years in which the total of the groups enrolled was less than 90 percent or more than 110 percent are excluded from the charts. Years in which any single group exceeded 100 percent are also excluded.

Population data for 1990 to 2015 are for 18-year-olds. Population data for 1980 is for 17- to 21-year-olds with high school degrees. The population and enrollment data do not consistently count multiracial or Native American students. To account for this, the percentages on the gap charts use only Asian, black, Hispanic and white counts in the denominator.

Your Editor Encourages: Our Latino leaders, wherever they are, must dream up initiatives to help Hispanics improve education levels.