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Study: US College Attendance Rates Increase White Privilege and Income Stratification

African-Americans and Latinos are much more likely than whites to attend poorly funded two- and four-year colleges with lower graduation rates, exacerbating  the increase in white privilege and racial stratification in income in the U.S., according to a comprehensive study published this week by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The study concludes that African-American and Latino students are under-represented at the nation’s 465 “most well-funded, selective four-year colleges and universities,” while they are over-represented at 3,250 open-access two-year colleges.

Reviewing 4,400 institutions over 15 years, between 1994 and 2009, researchers Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl determined that the racial stratification that begins in K-12 — and that is pervasive in society in general — gets confirmed in college.

Georgetown’s Carnevale calls the nation’s higher education system one of “racially separate and unequal institutions.”

“Access to the most selective colleges is increasing the intergenerational transmission of white racial privilege,” Carnevale said. “That wasn’t the case 30 years ago, but it is now that your education is pretty much determined by your parents’ education, more here than almost anywhere else.”

The study found that more than 240,000 high-achieving high school students who came from low-income families didn’t go to elite colleges or earn two- or four-year degrees after graduating. And of these students, about 1 in 4 — about 60,000 — are black or Latino.

The stratification takes place because of the big difference in the outcomes of open-access schools — primarily two-year colleges — and the selective top-tier schools. Because the elite schools have more resources and spend two to five times as much on students than open-access schools, they have much higher graduation rates.

Even among the students who score highest on the SAT and ACT tests, whites graduate college at a much higher rate (70 percent) than similarly qualified black (52 percent) or Latino (49 percent) classmates.

The differences then persist into the next generation, as only 26 percent of kids from families headed by college dropouts earn a bachelor’s degree or better.

Most devastating, the students who graduate from top schools usually earn an estimated $2 million more in income over a single lifetime.

Carnevale says white flight is the blame because whites who lived in downtown areas in the 1960s and 1970s, suddenly got housing money or G.I. bill benefits and fled to the suburbs with bigger houses and better schools.

“It’s not surprising that once they moved to the better schools, 20, 30 years later, we have the same profile in colleges that we do. So that wave has simply moved beyond suburbs and into college,” Carnevale says. “So you get this phenomenon now where the white population is declining, but the white representation in elite schools is increasing. So the selective colleges have become white privilege.”

Carnevale concludes that the type of school you attend matters a great deal, particularly for black, Latino and low-income students. At the top schools, he says, it’s often just a matter of getting your foot in the door.

“It’s one of the secrets of the elite schools is that you’ll graduate cum laude. If you pay that much money, you better get a plaque,” Carnevale says. “The elite schools don’t let you drop out. They have tutors, they have small classes.”

Over the next 30 years, as the majority of American paychecks will go to Latinos and African-Americans, Carnevale predicts a major shift in the nation’s higher-ed landscape.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” he said. “So I think we can envision a time when voters will be much more sympathetic toward investing in a diverse population.”

“Demography is not destiny,” said Joe Yeado, a research analyst with the Education Trust, which ranks schools based on their success in closing achievement gaps between their white and minority students.

Yeado says programs that support academic advising and orientation for black and Latino students are increasing access and boosting retention rates.

“They create a culture of completion on their campuses where everyone from tenured faculty down to resident assistants in the dorm have a hand in students’ success,” he said. “It doesn’t always take large sums of resources, but it does take a level of commitment.”

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