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Rags to Rags, Riches to Riches

Americans like to believe we live in a meritocracy.  That is, we believe that advancement in our society is based on intelligence, ability, hard work, and determination.  Of course there are plenty of examples of individuals who have risen from poverty across the racial spectrum to prove this point for those who want to believe it.  Recent research suggests, however, that these “rags to riches” exceptions don’t prove anything.  They simply provide appealing anecdotes for those who would have us be blind to the privileges that flow toward the children of educated and wealthy white parents. 

In Separate and Unequal:  How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege (July, 2013), researches at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce paint a dismal though compelling picture of how race and class perpetuate growing barriers to advancement for children of poor African American and Hispanic parents.  (http://cew.georgetown.edu/separateandunequal/)  This research is particularly timely given the Supreme Court docket this fall which includes a case from Michigan, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action in which the justices will be asked to determine whether voters in Michigan can be allowed to ban race as a criteria for college admissions.

The headline from Separate and Unequal is that “the post-secondary system is more and more complicit as a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations.”  While more African American and Hispanic youth are entering post-secondary education, most are going to two-year and four-year open-access schools, not to the most selective colleges and universities.  The numbers are startling.  Since 1995 82 percent of new white student enrollment in post-secondary schools has gone to the 468 most selective schools in the country, while only 13 percent of Hispanic and 9 percent of new African American student enrollment has gone to those same schools. 

As a result, enrollment share in the top colleges as a percentage of the college-age population has skewed white since 1995 in spite of the presence of much maligned affirmative action programs of various sorts.  In 1995 the white share of the college age population was 68 percent.  The white share of enrollments at the top colleges and universities was 77 percent.  By 2009 the white share of the college age population was 62 percent, while the white share of enrollment at the best schools was 75 percent.  In other words, the overrepresentation of the white population at the best schools increased from 9 percent to 13 percent over this 15 year period.  Correspondingly, African American and Hispanic underrepresentation increased from 12 to 15 percent over that same period of time. 

Particularly revealing are the “outcomes” for white, African American, and Hispanic students with comparable SAT/ACT college entrance examination scores.  White students gain admittance to the top schools at higher rates, graduate at higher rates, and are accepted into the best graduate school programs at higher rates.  Similar results are found when comparing students whose parents also went to college.  In other words, even if an African American or Hispanic high school student comes from a family where college is part of the legacy experience, and achieves excellent scores on SAT/ACT tests, he or she is far less likely to attend one of the best colleges and universities in the country with all of the privileges for career and income that tend to accrue to that experience.

There are many factors contributing to all of this.  Family income is a primary culprit, of course, with the pervasive linkage of race, class, and de facto racial apartheid in our secondary school system creating powerful disincentives and disadvantages to poorer students who are also African American or Hispanic.  Things as simple as the availability of college counselors in the public schools children attend can make an enormous difference.  The continued advantages that legacy applicants have with the children of alumni follow in their parents’ footsteps, privileges white applicants far more than children of color at our best schools.  Increased underfunding of state university systems that were points of access to a high quality education for poorer families has caused tuition to climb beyond the reach of many.  The increased number of wealthy “pay as you go” international students at many state universities squeezes the enrollment funnel for instate applicants who must rely on significant aid.  The list goes on and on.

Voters in places like Michigan who want to end any form of affirmative action may see this as an attempt to uphold fairness and equity in a world where rags to riches is an available option for every smart, hard-working child.  But even if we give them the benefit of the doubt regarding their intent, the impact is clear.  In a nation where rags to rags and riches to riches is far more the norm, assaults on affirmative action constitute part of a larger effort to defend and enshrine white race privilege in our country.  The research reported in Separate and Unequal suggests that this defense is succeeding across our educational system, success that for most will lock in privilege for a lifetime. 

John Thomas
October 17, 2013


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