Here's Why We Might Want to Use Race in College Admissions

PHOTO: A new study from Georgetown University suggests race should play a role in college admissions.Comstock Images/Getty Images
A new study from Georgetown University suggests race should play a role in college admissions.

Selective colleges might say they're trying to increase diversity but the numbers suggest otherwise. They're actually getting less racially diverse. And according to a new report from Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce, there's a simple solution: use race as part of the admissions process.

Minority students are having trouble getting into top schools even though overall minority college enrollment is growing. And non-Hispanic white students represent a growing percentage of the student body at the country's most selective schools even though they make up a shrinking portion of college-bound students overall.

Black and Hispanic students are largely relegated to less-selective public schools, which tend to have lower graduation rates and fewer resources. That holds true even when they're as qualified as the white students who are admitted.

Minority kids who do make it into selective colleges are far more likely to graduate than those who attend less prestigious schools. That might sound counter intuitive, but they do better because they often have better access to things like career counseling and one-on-one advising when they need help.

The report points out that in many ways the separation in college begins as early as elementary school.

"The postsecondary system mimics and magnifies the racial and ethnic inequality in educational preparation it inherits from the K-12 system and then projects this inequality into the labor market," reads the report's introduction.

And it's not likely to end anytime soon.

Students at top schools pass what the report calls their "educational advantages" on to their own children. Basically, those parents earn more, they live in more affluent neighborhoods and their children attend better schools, which means they get into better colleges.

This means parental education "[is] the strongest predictor of a child's educational attainment and future earnings" according to the report.

As the report also notes, the 468 most selective colleges spend anywhere from two to nearly five times as much per student as less selective institutions. African Americans and Hispanics who attend those schools also gain 21 percent in earning advantages compared with just 15 percent for whites who attend the same schools.

While a lot of this has to do with income, the report found that race has a distinctly negative effect.

"African Americans and Hispanics usually remain concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, even as individual family income increases," the report notes. "As a result, race gives additional power to the negative effects of low-income status and limits the positive effects of income gains, better schools and other educational improvements."

And sadly, pure racial discrimination continues to also play a role.

So how do we fix all of this?

Broadly, the report suggests, we need to consider race as an admissions factor and not dance around it with class-based metrics. That's tricky, though, because the Supreme Court said earlier this summer that racial diversity is a legitimate goal but that race alone cannot be used as a standard for admission.

The case they decided centered around the University of Texas' practice of offering top students from each high school in the state admission. Such a method is actually somewhat effective at ensuring racial diversity because minorities tend to be isolated in neighborhoods and considering individual schools and not the state as a whole allows the university system to create some diversity.

But it does not yield the same numbers of minority students as true race-based admissions, the report cautions.

The ultimate goal should be to reduce racial disparities early, at the K-12 level, so they're gone by college. But that's a long-term, complex issue. In the meantime, the report suggests that colleges launch "bold outreach efforts by race," such as recruiting racial minorities, even if they don't use race explicitly during admissions decisions.