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Why do so many talented black students attend lousy colleges?
And what can be done to change this?
Georgetown's McDonough School of Business 2010 graduating class. 
Georgetown's McDonough School of Business 2010 graduating class.  Facebook.com/GeorgetownUniv

More black and Hispanic students are attending college than ever before, but they're attending less selective schools where they're far less likely to graduate than their white peers, according to a report released last week by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

Community colleges and the least selective schools that draw a disproportionate share of minority students, even after controlling for academic performance, are poorly funded and over-crowded, making it more difficult for their students to successfully complete their education, finds the report, Separate & Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege.

"A lot of the differences reflect expectations," says Jeff Strohl, who co-authored the report with Anthony Carnevale. "We know that first-time college-going students tend to undershoot the level of education they can achieve. They don't necessarily know that they can get into an elite four-year institution, so they don't apply."

African-Americans and Hispanics who attend one of the top 468 colleges graduate at a rate of 73 percent, compared with a rate of 40 percent for equally qualified minorities who attend the 3,250 least-selective colleges.

It's important to note that far fewer blacks achieve SAT scores that would make them competitive at elite colleges. Just 5 percent of blacks scored 600 or higher on the math section of the SATs last year, and just 4 percent scored 600 or higher on the writing section. By comparison, 30 percent of whites scored 600 or better on the math section, and 22 percent of whites scored 600 or better in the writing section, according to the College Board.

Asians outperformed all other groups, with 53 percent scoring 600 or better on the math test, and 32 percent scoring 600 or better in writing. The Georgetown report did not look at Asian enrollment or graduation rates because the sample group was too small to be statistically significant, Strohl says.

GRADUATION RATES AND THE WEALTH GAP
Among students who score in the top half of the nation's high school students and attend college, 51 percent of whites get a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 34 percent of African-Americans, and 32 percent of Hispanic students, the report finds. (Hispanic is a race, not an ethnicity. This study focused on non-white Hispanics.)

For the relatively few minority students that do attend the most selective schools, the difference in outcome is staggering. African-Americans and Hispanics gain a 21 percent annual earnings advantage when they attend the more selective schools, versus a 15 percent earnings premium for whites who attend the same college.

That disparity in graduation rates between the most- and least-selective colleges perpetuates the wealth gap that is dividing America. In 2010, white families had an average wealth of $532,000, compared to $103,000 for blacks and Hispanics, according to an Urban Institute study released in April.

The Georgetown report finds that workers with professional degrees, 76 percent of whom are white, earn $2.1 million more over a lifetime than workers who dropped out of college.

"More college completion among white parents brings higher earnings that fuel the intergenerational reproduction of privilege by providing more highly educated parents the means to pass their educational advantages on to their children," the report states. "Higher earnings buy more expensive housing in the suburbs with the best schools and peer support for educational attainment."

Only about a quarter of students from families headed by college dropouts go on to earn a bachelor's degree, the report finds.

BEYOND AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
The most elite colleges do have policies and programs aimed at attracting the most talented minority students. A Harvard study last year found that "institutional fit," which includes whether an applicant is a member of an underrepresented race or ethnicity, is one of the factors that goes into the admissions decision. They have developed special mentoring programs and dedicated orientation programs aimed at helping minority students graduate.

The study does not specifically address policy changes that could mitigate the gap in graduation rates, but it does say that affirmative action alone is not the answer. "Affirmative action … can help out those who strive and overcome the odds yet does relatively little to change the odds themselves," the report states. (In June, the Supreme Court declined to rule on an affirmative action case but made clear that the law could be overturned in a subsequent case.)

In addition to starting out in a K-12 system with inequality problems of its own, black and Hispanic students have additional hurdles throughout the admissions process. Part of the reason equally qualified minority students attend less selective schools is that since they're often the first generation in their family to attend college, their parents are less likely to know the ins and outs of applying for colleges and getting financial aid, nor can they afford the expense of visiting and applying to a dozen schools.

Some institutional policies around admissions also favor wealthy and white students, says Julie Park, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's College of Education. For example, early-decision policies, which are offered by 22 percent of private schools and 11 percent of public schools, require a binding decision from a student before he or she has had a chance to apply for financial aid.

The Georgetown study finds that more than 100,000 African-American and Hispanic students graduate in the top half of their class but don't receive a degree within eight years.

"Those kids are the low-hanging fruit, and we're missing them," Strohl says. "They won't need the summer or remedial classes. Their test scores show that they could be performing at the same level as peers who go to more selective schools but they aren't attending those schools."

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