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Equity in Higher Education: Moving Beyond Equal Access in College Admissions

March 7, 2016

Princess Adentan

Intern - Educational Opportunities Project

“You do not take a man who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair.”

In his 1965 commencement address to Howard University, Lyndon B. Johnson recognized that political, social, and economic equality for Blacks demanded more than just equal treatment, but equalizing treatment. Without the latter, Blacks, burdened by de facto segregation, conscious and subconscious discrimination, under-education, and other lasting vestiges of slavery, could not fairly compete for the equality promised to them. Fifty years after President Johnson’s speech, many of these disadvantages, most notably under-education, persist for all minorities: in 2014, despite increased college enrollment rates, Hispanics and blacks were underrepresented in the total number of college degree holders. This raises an important question—why aren’t minorities graduating once enrolled? The answer lies somewhere in the fundamental disconnect between university policies which focus on equal admission, and broader goals related to equal opportunity in higher education.


We usually think of property material possessions to which we have a right—a home, a car, a watch. But others define property as any expectation legitimized by law and custom. Imagine you come to expect 10% of your colleague’s salary. If this expectation is protected by law, this share of someone else’s salary becomes your property, in spite of the fact that you did not earn it. Recognizing this, you might develop customs to preserve a culture of exclusivity and to protect this interest. The expectation of profit to which you have no right becomes your property insofar as law and custom, working in tandem, construct a society that reinforces your sense of entitlement. Some people reject the injustice of such a system. Others prioritize property over equity.

Cheryl Harris defines “Whiteness as property” as the legitimization by law of the expectations of white privilege. Historically, whites were entitled by law to Native American lands and black labor. Since these and other benefits of whiteness depended on racial subordination and the exclusion of non-whites from opportunities such as education, employment, freedom, and land, exclusivity became the means of protecting the property interest in whiteness. Customs developed by universities such as legacy admissions may reinforce their exclusivity. It seems, however, that many universities now advocate for inclusion. They argue that there is a compelling interest in diversity in education; that education can correct decades of racial, social, and economic oppression; and that equal access in the admissions process achieves this goal.

To this end, some universities employ holistic review admissions strategies and targeted recruitment to convince prospective minorities to apply and accepted minorities to enroll. Between 1976 and 2008, the share of black undergraduates in overall enrollment rose from 10 to 14 percent while Hispanic enrollment rose almost 600% from 353,000 to 2,103,000. Despite these successes, enrollment is only part of the story. Relying on enrollment as a measure of equity ignores the challenges faced by minorities within higher education. Rather than equalizing opportunity and capitalizing on the benefits of diversity, focusing on equal admissions perpetuates exclusivity by (1) framing discussions on diversity from the perspective of those at the top and by (2) stopping short of equalizing treatment.

Some of the results produced by such a system can be observed at Mizzou where the administration ignored multiple racially charged events and dismissed the fears of minority students on campus. On its webpage devoted to diversity, Mizzou promises to “optimally engage” all students “in the building of new knowledge” about “human difference.”  In the past, Mizzou employed holistic review and targeted recruitment programs; it boasts its student body is nearly representative of the state’s overall diversity. However, Mizzou did not appoint a campus officer for diversity, inclusion and equity until after media coverage of its slow response to racism and numerous death threats issued against black students. Administrators refused to engage with black leadership on campus, namely the Concerned Students of 1950. Although protesters may have undermined their own mission, the administration took few actions until the football team threatened to halt all games to send a clear message: we celebrate difference when it is convenient for us and remain silent when it is not.

Universities admit students who face a host of structural disadvantages and tell them you are free to find success here, to take advantage of the opportunities here, and to find your home here. But the barriers to opportunity—stereotype threats, cultural differences, economic hardship, parents’ level of education, academic preparation, and conscious and subconscious discrimination—remain after admission when students seek diplomas, admission to clubs, and leadership positions.  The effects are evident in the gaps in graduation rates between minorities and whites. Nationally, 60 percent of whites—but only 49 percent of Latinos and 40 percent of African Americans—who start college hold bachelor’s degrees six years later.

Universities with exceptional minority graduation rates commit to equalizing treatment on campus. Take for example the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, a public research university where the graduation rate among black students surpasses that of white students by 5 percentage points. Their Vice Provost, Alan Boyette, attributes their minority graduation rates to the University’s focus on the timely graduation of students. The university employs and continuously refines intentional programs targeting underserved populations. A visit to UNC-Greensboro’s website further demonstrates their dedication to equalizing treatment: information on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is readily available. The site details campus diversity training, policies, and resources to decrease cultural insensitivity, to foster greater inclusion of minority perspectives in the curriculum, and to encourage respectful dialogue. Organizations like the Journal of Black Masculinity further empower minority voices on campus. Florida State University, an institution where 72% of black students graduate within six years compared to 69% of white students, is another telling example.

Like UNC-Greensboro, FSU practices equalizing treatment. Through its Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement (CARE) program, it identifies the academic disadvantages minorities face and guides each student through to graduation. From pre-enrollment programs to special academic advisors and bimonthly social events, CARE ensures that each student is integrated into campus life and receives the academic and social support integral to success. These two universities are not outliers. In 2006, all four-year colleges and universities with small or nonexistent black/white six-year graduation rate gaps implemented such programs.

Equal entrance to college is not enough. The promise of higher educational opportunity demands equalizing treatment throughout the college experience.  The examples above demonstrate that the problem lies not in the intellectual capacities of minority students but in the disjoint between the proposed goals of universities and the methods used to achieve them.

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