Although college enrollment rates have swelled over the past thirty years, minority students tend to be less likely to matriculate and persist in college. As the relationship between college degree attainment and economic mobility continues to strengthen, it becomes imperative to understand the accessibility of higher education, especially for underrepresented minority groups. This entry explores factors affecting minority student participation and opportunity in the higher education arena.
Roots Of Access
Tracing back to its beginnings, higher education in the United States was reserved for an elite few, typically White males from privileged backgrounds. As a result, minority students found alternate paths to higher education through such initiatives as the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Although the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education focused on elementary and secondary public school education, it underscored the inequity of educational opportunities for students based on race.
Campaigns such as the civil rights movement and public pressures pushed colleges and universities to address racial concerns on their campuses. Over time, the doors of higher education slowly opened to include a more diverse population. Today, however, some colleges and universities still continue to struggle with diversification of their campuses. As such, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights functions as an agency to ensure and enforce nondiscriminatory educational practices.
To support and encourage minority student participation in higher education, affirmative action policies were designed to counteract the past effects of racial discrimination and recruit underrepresented groups of students to colleges across the country. These policies, however, were met with much controversy. Over time, the public tested the authority of affirmation action in the courts. In the 1978 case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court determined that race could be a factor taken into consideration when assembling a student body. The Court, however, rejected the use of quotas to implement affirmative action policies.
In 2003, the Supreme Court upheld the decision that race could be a factor considered for admission purposes in a case against the University of Michigan Law School, Grutter v. Bollinger. That same year, the Supreme Court also ruled in Gratz v. Bollinger that the University of Michigan’s Undergraduate Admissions Office could not award students admissions points simply based on race. Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s message encouraged colleges and universities to assemble a diverse student body without using formulaic methods.
Choice And Benefits
According to the College Board, students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree earn annual salaries that average $20,000 a year more than high school diploma recipients. Current literature also suggests that attainment of a bachelor’s degree is associated with lower unemployment rates, fewer incarcerations, increased voter participation, greater tax contributions, and positive health-related behaviors. The benefit of higher education extends not only to individuals, but also to the greater society. That is, investment in higher education is both a private and a public endeavor.
Inadequate academic preparedness and/or lack of opportunities for college preparation in high school can inhibit minority students from transitioning into college. Governmental support and outreach programs that address these issues, however, tend to be subject to cutbacks and elimination every budget year. Especially for minority students from urban areas, the accessibility of guidance counselors is low, and these students often do not have the necessary information regarding the college process when making their future career and educational goals. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2004, 35.6 percent of the high school dropouts were Hispanic and Black students compared to 6.8 percent of White students. Conversely, 72.2 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients were White, non-Hispanic in 2003–2004. This achievement gap also persists at the graduate and professional school level.
For a large proportion of college-going students, escalating tuition and costs present a barrier to enrollment and persistence. The Higher Education Act of 1965 attempted to relieve some of the financial strain that students and their families faced. After its peak in 1976, however, governmental funding for low-income students weakened. That is, the percentage of tuition covered by the Pell Grant dropped over time as the government could not keep pace with rising tuition prices. In its report, titled “Empty Promises,” the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance found that a high-achieving, low-income student was as likely to attend college as a low-ability, high-income student. The data in their report largely underscore the inequity in opportunity based on family income. In addition to inadequate academic preparation and insufficient funding, critics also point to admissions policies that favor students from White, privileged backgrounds (i.e., early decision/admissions programs) as barriers to access.
The authors in D. H. Heller’s Condition of Access predict that the population of potential college-going students will continue to grow and include a greater number of low-income and minority students. Today’s job market requires a more skilled and credentialed workforce. Students who do not have equal access to educational opportunities will be at a disadvantage. In a democratic society, all students should have the opportunity to succeed in the academic arena. Fundamentally, access to higher education is a reflection of societal values and attitudes. Investment in access not only supports the cause of social justice, but also is a path to secure the future of our country, both financially and socially.
- Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. (2002). Empty promises: The myth of college access in America. Washington, DC: Author.
- Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. (1998). The shape of the river. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Chang, M. J., Altbach, P. G., & Lomotey, K. (2005). Race in higher education: Making meaning of an elusive moving target. In P. G. Altbach, R. O. Berdhal, & P. J. Gumport (Eds.), American higher education in the 21st century (2nd ed., pp. 517–536). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Heller, D. E. (2002). Condition of access. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Perna, L. W. (2000). Differences in the decision to attend college among African Americans, Hispanics, and Whites. Journal of Higher Education, 71(2), 117–141.
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