Who Applies (and Gets In)

Black and Latino applicants with academic credentials equal to white applicants are more likely to apply to and enroll in selective colleges, study finds.
August 22, 2011

LAS VEGAS -- The relatively small numbers of black and Latino students in many elite colleges (and in higher education as a whole) continue to worry many educators. A paper presented here Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association found that black and Latino students with academic credentials equal to those of white students are slightly more likely than their white counterparts to apply to and enroll at selective colleges.

The finding, the paper's authors say, suggests that those who want more minority students at elite colleges need to focus not so much on colleges' policies but on improving high schools (and the entire K-12 system) so that more black and Latino applicants have similar academic credentials to their white counterparts.

The underlying idea behind the study was to take a closer look at student application choice as one factor in tracking enrollment patterns. As the authors noted, students are not admitted if they don't apply. Further, some recent research has suggested a problem of "under-matching" in which black and Latino students may fail to apply to the most competitive colleges to which they could be admitted.

But the authors of this new work don't see that going on. The authors are Ann L. Mullen, associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto; Kimberly A. Goyette, associate professor of sociology at Temple University; and Katie Stuart, a doctoral student at Toronto.

They analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (known as NELS) that follows representative samples of students in the United States from eighth grade on, including information on the colleges to which they apply and enroll, as well as socioeconomic information about the students. For purposes of the study, the scholars counted colleges as competitive if the average SAT score was 1200 or higher.

Much of the initial information was not surprising, given the current enrollment patterns in American higher education. On average, Asian Americans apply to colleges with SAT averages 50 points higher than do white applicants, who in turn apply to colleges with SAT averages about 50 points higher than those to which black and Latino students apply.

Then there is the question of who applies to competitive colleges: the NELS data show that 30 percent of Asian American applicants do, compared to 18 percent of white students and 10 percent of black and Latino students.

Those figures are irrespective of various measures of socioeconomic status and academic background. Controlling for several socioeconomic factors, especially whether the student has a parent who went to college, the gaps narrow a bit. But when academic background is controlled for, the authors found that while Asians are more likely to apply to and enroll at selective colleges than are all other groups, black and Latino applicants are slightly more likely to apply to and enroll in selective colleges than are white students.

Many elite colleges face considerable pressure to expand their outreach efforts to attract more minority students, or to consider changes in admissions policies. But Goyette said that the data in the new study show that those efforts -- while laudable -- may not have a huge impact, given that the central issue appears to be the relatively small number of black and Latino applicants with academic backgrounds comparable to white students. "The most effective way" for top colleges to enroll more black and Latino students, she said, is to improve high schools that serve black and Latino students.

The study analyzed academic preparation without regard to the impact of affirmative action on admissions decisions. So to the extent admissions patterns vary by racial and ethnic groups at some institutions, the analysis did not factor that in.

Mullen said that she did not want the results to be perceived as suggesting that there is no impact of racial bias in education today. It is possible, she said, that one reason that relatively few black and Latino students have the academic background of other students is that they don't get equal opportunities, and that their talents aren't recognized and encouraged. But if this is the explanation, she said that it again suggests a need to focus on preparation for college.


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