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Earlier this year, the Supreme Court stepped up its scrutiny of race in college access in Fisher v. University of Texas. It once again ignited a national conversation on affirmative action and whether race-conscious quotas have fulfilled their purpose. But are we having the right conversation?
If weíre being honest with ourselves, we know that new approaches are needed to give underserved students greater access to education beyond high school. As a nation, we need policymakers, institution leaders, employers and others with courage to help chart the best path forward.
The difficult truth facing our country ó affirmative action or not ó is that American colleges and universities are still separate and unequal. The inequity in our postsecondary system has grown far too big for Band-Aid policies alone, and the stratification of our higher-education institutions, especially with regard to race, requires our attention.
A new study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce finds that minority access to postsecondary education over the past 15 years is a good news/bad news story. The good news is that postsecondary access has increased, especially for African-Americans and Hispanics. The bad news is that the pace of attainment isnít nearly good enough, and both groups are losing ground.
From 1995 to 2009, more than 80 percent of new students enrolled in the 468 most selective colleges in America were white. Over that same time span, more than 70 percent of new African-American and Hispanic students were enrolled in some 3,250 open-access, two- and four-year colleges. Of course, admissions selectivity doesnít guarantee high quality, and open admissions policies donít necessarily eliminate rigor. Still, by and large, todayís students are traveling on separate postsecondary pathways leading to unequal opportunities and outcomes.
Each year, there are more than 100,000 high-scoring African-American and Latino students from the top half of the nationís high schools who either donít attend college or donít graduate. About 60,000 of these students come from families in the bottom half of the income distribution. African-American and Latino students are also more likely to drop out of college.
This matters because more than three-fourths of the nationís professional degree holders are white. Statistics show that workers with advanced degrees earn up to $2 million per student over the course of a lifetime. They contribute more in taxes, are more involved civically and socially, and consume fewer public resources than college dropouts.
To ensure that these students get the support and resources they need for degree attainment, we canít keep advocating for more representation in elite, selective schools ó there simply arenít enough seats in the top colleges for all the students who can do the work. Thatís why we need to bring the high-quality education delivered by the elite colleges to all of our college students, wherever they are enrolled.
We believe that all of higher education must be reformed to design a truly student-centered, learning-based system ó one that ensures access to all types of students, gives those students the preparation and ongoing support they need to succeed, and enables them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning.