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Charles Hamilton Houston quote

  News & Views

Most Black Students at Harvard Are From High-Income Families

In the late 1960s major universities were recruiting low-income or so-called ghetto blacks. Not so today. If Harvard has set the pattern for others, it appears likely that most blacks currently enrolled at our elite institutions of higher education come from middle- or high-income families.

Many, if not most Americans, believe that the 1960s protest movement that produced aggressive college recruitment of “ghetto kids” continues today bringing significant numbers of low-income and often underqualified blacks to America's elite campuses.

But the conventional wisdom is false.

In a 2004 interview Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard, told the London Observer, “The black kids who come to Harvard or Yale are middle class. Nobody else gets through.”

That same year Professor Gates, speaking at a public forum at Princeton University, stated his belief that 75 percent of the black students at Harvard were of African or Caribbean descent or of mixed race. According to Professor Gates, more than two thirds of all Harvard's black students were either the children or grandchildren of West Indians or Africans and very few of Harvard's black students were the descendants of American slaves.

In his 2005 book The Chosen, Professor Jerome Karabel of the University of California at Berkeley has produced credible research showing that most minority students at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale come from high-income families. Karabel notes that the Big Three's preference for legacy admissions, both black and white, tends to limit economic diversity on campus.

Harvard's highly publicized new financial aid program, which eliminates loans for all students who come from families with incomes under $60,000, has produced only small gains in the number of low-income students at Harvard. The latest Pell Grant numbers from the U.S. Department of Education show that still less than one in 10 Harvard students comes from a low-income family.

A 2004 survey of black students at 28 selective colleges and universities conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University found that 41 percent of all black students at these 28 campuses identified themselves as immigrants or children of immigrants. Only 9 percent of the total black population in the United States can be classified as immigrants or children of immigrants.

University of Illinois professor Walter Benn Michaels put the question most bluntly when he said, “When students and faculty activists struggle for cultural diversity, they are in large part battling over what skin color the rich kids have.”

What about the academically strong black students from low-income families? Where are they going to college? Some indeed make their way to elite private institutions. But it is likely that the majority are being snapped up by academically strong and selective state universities. Here the tuitions are reasonable, travel expenses to and from campus are low, and the student body is more likely to have peer relationships more hospitable to minority students from low-income families.

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