University Race-Sensitive Admissions Programs Are Not Helping Black Students Who Most Need Assistance
A new study from researchers at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania finds that large numbers of black students at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities are either financially well off or have parents who were born in foreign nations.
Low-income blacks tend to be the descendants of American slaves who suffered from generations of racial discrimination during the Jim Crow era. For the most part, they are not the students benefiting from today’s race-sensitive admissions programs at America’s most selective colleges.
In the late 1960s, when the nation’s most selective colleges and universities initiated affirmative action admissions programs, the underlying rationale for these efforts was to repair the wrongs that had excluded African-American students from these campuses for most of American history. In laying the groundwork for affirmative action in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson made the famous statement,
“We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
The affirmative action programs that ensued were immediately and strikingly successful. For example, the number of black students in the entering class at Harvard increased from 25 in 1965 to 121 in the year 1969. At Yale the number of entering black students rose from 23 in 1965 to 96 in 1969. Similar progress in the admission of blacks occurred at America’s other selective universities.
After these initial successes, progress was slower. Over the next four decades the number of black students at America’s elite and academically selective institutions of higher education increased but at a much slower pace. While the number of black students on these campuses has not changed dramatically in recent years, there has been an important sea change in the demographic makeup of the black students on these selective campuses. Many of the black students at America’s most selective institutions are from upper-middle-class African-American families. Very rarely are they the children of low-income blacks whose economic station in life is still influenced by slavery and a century of racial segregation. Another large group of black students at America’s most selective colleges and universities today are foreign born or have parents who recently emigrated from Caribbean nations or Africa. Obviously, these students are not the descendants of those who were wronged by American slavery or Jim Crow segregation.
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 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. Very few, he said, of Harvard’s black students were the descendants of American slaves.
The initial emphasis colleges and universities placed on affirmative action — to help students who were descendants of slaves and had lived through the racial discrimination of the Jim Crow era — now has been largely forgotten. Today colleges and universities simply declare a strong desire and pedagogical need to increase racial diversity on their campuses. Rarely do selective institutions of higher education take the position that race-sensitive admissions are justified to rectify past wrongs. Now colleges and universities simply take the more politically acceptable position that racial diversity in itself is an educational benefit to all students. With this change in philosophy, the socioeconomic background of a black student is no longer important. What counts is simply the color of the applicant’s skin.
Statistics from a number of sources back up Professor Gates’ suspicions that black students at the nation’s elite colleges are either foreign born, recent immigrants, or from black families with significant financial resources. Accord-ing to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2004, more than 12 percent of all black undergraduate students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities were born in a foreign land. This is nearly four times the rate for whites. Nearly 21 percent of all black students enrolled in undergraduate higher education in the United States had at least one parent born outside the United States.
Who Are the Black Students at America’s Elite Colleges and Universities?
Now a new study by Professors Douglas S. Massey, Margarita Mooney, and Kimberly C. Torres of Princeton University and Camille Z. Charles of the University of Pennsylvania shows that black students who are not able to claim to be descendants of American slaves make up an even larger percentage of the black students at America’s most selective colleges and universities than is the case in the nation as a whole.
This study, published in the February 2007 issue of the American Journal of Education, finds that 27 percent of black students at 28 highly selective colleges and universities had at least one parent who was born outside the United States. But nationwide, 20.9 percent of all black undergraduate students had at least one parent born in a foreign land. Thus, the percentage of recent immigrants among black students at the selective schools is significantly higher than the nationwide average. The data shows that of the immigrant black students at these 28 selective colleges, 43 percent had Caribbean roots while 29 percent had at least one parent born in Africa.
When we look at the eight Ivy League colleges alone, according to the study, 40.9 percent of all black students had at least one parent born in a foreign land. This is almost twice the national average for black students at all colleges and universities in the United States.
The Socioeconomic Background of Black Students at Selective Colleges
The study by the Princeton and Penn researchers also looked at the family backgrounds of the black students who enrolled at 28 selective colleges and universities. The results showed, as Harvard’s Professor Gates suspected, that the vast majority of black students at these schools are not from low-income, inner-city, or rural black belt families. In fact, for native-born black students at these 28 selective colleges and universities, a remarkable 55.2 percent of their fathers are college graduates and 25 percent of their fathers hold a graduate degree. Fifty-seven percent of these students at selective colleges have mothers who had completed college and 26 percent have mothers who hold a graduate degree. These percentages are about triple the national average for all African Americans.
Furthermore, for native-born black students at these 28 selective institutions, 74 percent owned their home compared to less than half of all black families nationwide. The median value of the homes of these black students was nearly $200,000.
More than one quarter of the native-born black students at these selective colleges and universities come from families with annual incomes over $100,000. Nationwide, only 7 percent of all black households have incomes of more than $100,000.
Twenty-seven percent of the black students at these selective colleges and universities were graduates of private high schools. This is a level very similar to that of white students at these selective colleges and universities.
Clearly, the historical goals of affirmative action to help black students who were descendants of slaves and who had undergone generations of economic hardship during the Jim Crow era are no longer the driving force behind racial diversity efforts at selective American colleges and universities. Recently, many of the nation’s most elite colleges and universities have shifted gears. Led by President Anthony Marx of Amherst College, Shirley Tilghman of Princeton University, Amy Gutmann of Penn and others, a movement is under way to recruit students of all races from low-income families.