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Laws that barred Black students from enrolling at colleges and universities are long gone. But what about other systems in the college admissions process that, whether by intent or not, favor white students?

Art & Science Group, which advises colleges on their enrollment strategies, wanted to explore the issue. Today, it is releasing a study of the views of high school seniors that documents significant advantages of white students (and sometimes Asian students) in the admissions process.

  • More than two-thirds of white students (68 percent) say they can rely on family and friends for information about the college admissions process. Only 38 percent of Black students agree.
  • Those who are not first-generation college students also lead first-generation college students in this category, but by a smaller margin: 63 percent to 52 percent.
  • White and Asian students plan to apply to more colleges (four) than other students.
  • White students were more likely than others to have gone on campus tours.

The reality is that “college admissions offices still struggle to level the playing field for students within a system in which various forms of privilege—racial and ethnic, financial, access to social networks, family’s educational aspirations—confer advantages on some groups at the expense of others,” said a report Art & Science is releasing about the data.

The survey on which the report is based was conducted in September. The respondents were 734 domestic high school seniors who intended at that point to attend a four-year institution as a full-time student next fall.

Getting Information on Colleges

“Where students turn for information about the colleges they are considering appears to be greatly dependent on their access to social capital,” the report says. “While race/ethnicity is often the most powerful predictor, family educational attainment has a significant and discrete effect.”

The results show a white advantage and a Black disadvantage, with other groups in between.

  Can Rely on Family and Friends Participated in Campus Tour
Asian 57% 18%
Black 38% 27%
Latinx 48% 15%
White 68% 38%

The study also looked at first-generation status.

  Can Rely on Family and Friends Participated in Campus Tour
First generation 52% 20%
Non–first generation 63% 37%

“While it’s difficult to gauge the ways in which the COVID pandemic has affected student behavior with respect to in-person campus visits, the fact that white students were more likely to go to campus for an in-person tour (38 percent vs. 23 percent) seems very likely to be influenced by levels of privilege different racial and ethnic groups enjoy as well as attitudes toward COVID,” the report said.

The relationship between race and socioeconomic class is also evident in looking at how many colleges students anticipate applying to, although here the Asian figure is equal that for whites. And the socioeconomic totals aren’t what many people would expect.

  Number of Colleges They Anticipate Applying To
Asian 4.0
Black 3.2
Latinx 3.4



  Number of Colleges They Anticipate Applying To
< $60,000 in income 4.1
$60,000 to < $120,000 3.6
$120,000 and up 3.5

“The number of institutions in a student’s choice set also correlates with household income, but somewhat counterintuitively,” the report says. “Whereas we might expect greater affluence to favor greater numbers of institutions in a students’ choice set, this distinction goes to those in the lowest income group (<$60k household income), who are considering on average 4.1 institutions compared to 3.6 and 3.5, respectively, for the next two higher-income groups. It seems reasonable to speculate that, given the greater resources and social capital available to them, higher-income students are simply farther along in the process by early fall and have already begun to whittle down their choices and that lower-income students simply aren’t in as good of a position to make such choices.”

The survey also examined differences in the way students from different racial groups evaluated their college choices. The students were asked to rate their college choices on a scale of one to 10.

“Asian students and white students rated their first-choice school significantly higher than their second-choice school (8.8 vs. 7.8 and 8.9 vs. 7.9, respectively), whereas no significant differences were found in the degree to which other racial/ethnic groups, including Black and Hispanic students, differentiated among their choices,” the survey found. “The key difference appears to be the ratings accorded the first choice, which was generally higher for Asian and White students than for the other groups.”

What the Results Mean

David Straus, a principal at Art & Science, said all the differences between white students (and especially Black students) point to more sophistication about applying to college, not to better preparation for college.

Colleges, viewing the results, should remember “that eventually, it’s going to end up that certain classes of students are going to apply to more than others”—and those who are applying more are likely to be white.

“It’s a measure of privilege, one way or another,” he added.

He said the results of the study were particularly relevant to the Supreme Court, which will decide on the next few months whether to hear a case involving Harvard University’s affirmative action policies. Too much of the discussion about the case, he said, suggests—falsely—that there is equal opportunity for all students.

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