College Graduation Ceremonies Are Not as Diverse as We Think

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Are Colleges Really Helping Under-Represented Minorities?

American colleges have taken important steps to increase the number of minority students in their incoming class. Harvard University, for the second year in a row, stated that its incoming class of 2021 is majority “non-white.” While colleges are consciously increasing the number of minorities in their student body, the racial diversity of students that actually end up graduating with a bachelor’s degree is much more homogenous.

According to the Education Trust, while most colleges increased their graduation rates, the gap between the graduation rates of white students and minority students remains roughly the same as it was ten years ago.  While the graduation rate increased by about 6.3 percent for under-represented minorities (URMs), the graduation rate for white students increased by 5.7 percent. That’s a reduction of only 0.6 percent over ten years, which is a miniscule step towards closing the 14 percent gap in college graduation rates between white students and URMs. White students had a 64.2 percent graduation rate compared to a 50.1 percent graduation rate for URMs.

The group that saw the biggest increase in graduation rate was Hispanics with a 7.1 percent rise and the lowest increase was for African-American students (with a 4.1 percent rise).

According to Kimberlee Eberle-Sudré, a co-author of the report, “We caution institutional leaders who celebrate their graduation rate gains to take a good look at their data and ask whether they are doing enough to get more African-American, Latino and Native students to graduation and to close completion gaps. The answer for many institutions is ‘no.’ Fewer than half of the institutions we analyzed raised rates for their underrepresented students and cut gaps.”

Even though colleges try to do more to make sure that their incoming class is culturally and racially diverse, they don’t appear to be doing as much to ensure that their graduating class maintains that level of diversity. The trend doesn’t seem comforting—the US used to have the highest graduation rate and is now ranked tenth.

So, what exactly is going wrong?

Hillary Pennington, of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says, “Higher education has been able to duck this issue for years, particularly the more selective schools, by saying the onus is on the individual student; if they fail, it’s their fault.”

A fair bit of criticism can be directed at the affirmative action programs used by the universities when selecting their students. When colleges accept students of a particular community with lower grade thresholds and SAT scores, they are, in effect, devaluing merit and academic commitment. The effects are evident later during college, because many students are admitted to the college with less rigorous requirements than non-affirmative action students. Affirmative action students are generally from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and go to public schools that do not offer the academic rigor that enables such students to be competitive in colleges.

However, affirmative action is only part of the problem. Many universities lack the institutional capacity to help and guide URM students to succeed in a college environment. URM students often lack the necessary support services to allow them to adjust to a competitive, high pressure environment. Universities aren’t actually improving diversity by increasing the diversity of their incoming class because they do little to ensure that URM students stay in college after admission.

The 2016 study by the US Department of Education also corroborates the information in the Education Trust report. The study noted the increase in enrollment rates of URMs in college. Between 1990-2013, enrollment of Hispanics in college as a percentage of total enrollment increased by 11 points (from 6 to 17 percent) and enrollment of African-American students increased by 5 points (from 10 to 15 percent). However, the six-year graduation rate for African-Americans was the lowest at 41 percent as compared to the highest value of 71 percent for Asian-Americans. The study also stated that the 3-year undergraduate graduation rate at public, 2 year institutions was lowest for African-American students (11 percent).

Racial diversity in college is complex and is more than meets the eye. Enrollment statistics do not tell the whole story. There is a persistent problem within universities impeding URM students from finishing their degrees and advancing their professional careers.

Arin Gerald studies mechanical engineering at Boston University. He writes about entrepreneurship, technology, and business.

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