Urban Wire Racial Equity in Higher Education Starts in the Admissions Office
Kelia Washington
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Student reads a book at school

Where students attend college has serious implications for both the education attainment and racial wealth gap, yet more selective, and arguably better resourced, colleges in the US are serving disproportionately high shares of white and Asian students, while Black and Hispanic students are disproportionately enrolled in open access, less selective, and for-profit colleges. This has been the case for years, and the current public health and economic crisis will exacerbate this institutional stratification if mitigating disparate impact is not central to proposed solutions.

In a report and data visualization out today, Tomas Monarrez and I examine racial representation across the country’s colleges. We look at whether a racial or ethnic group is over- or underrepresented at a given college relative to that college’s potential pool of students. Colleges are located in different areas, and not all colleges have access to the same students. Regulating a college’s potential student pool to a radius surrounding the colleges allows for a better comparison across colleges.

We find Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented at less selective public and private colleges and drastically underrepresented at more selective institutions. On the flip side, white and Asian students are overrepresented at more selective public and private colleges. Black students are also increasingly overrepresented at for-profit colleges.

These trends are important because of the variation in outcomes across sectors. Students at for-profit colleges have disproportionately high rates of student loan default, for example, yet more selective public and private colleges can act as vehicles of economic mobility.

As colleges across the country grapple with their role in systemic racism and adjust their admissions processes in response to COVID-19, there is an opportunity for college administrators to implement policies to make their college more racially representative of their communities and to reflect on the policies that exacerbate racial inequities. 

What colleges can do

The disproportionate concentration of Black and Hispanic students at open access, less selective, and for-profit colleges can be explained in part by examining the barriers to access at more selective colleges. For many colleges, standardized test scores are still a major component of a college application, but tests, such as the ACT and SAT, can sometimes say more about class and race than about academic preparedness (PDF). Test-optional policies aren’t the holy grail to dismantling racial inequities in college access, but they are a start. Some colleges are now considering test-optional policies because of COVID-19 and test date cancellations, but these policy changes could be temporary. The test score requirement could go back into place once testing resumes.

Cost is also a barrier for many Black and brown students, and this barrier has become even more pronounced amid COVID-19. Removing upfront costs, such as application fees and cost to send transcripts, is a small change that could lift the financial burden many students experience when applying to colleges. Increasing need-based aid (PDF), especially if that aid is targeted toward communities who historically have had less access to financial resources or are more likely to experience a higher debt burden, can do a lot to increase college affordability and access.

Lack of college awareness or exposure can also limit student’s college options. Students are less likely to put themselves in the game if they feel as though they don’t stand a chance, a phenomenon known as undermatching. Events, such as college tours, college fairs, and recruitment visits to high schools, increase college awareness. As a former college adviser at two rural high schools in southern Virginia, I scheduled as many college tours and recruitment visits as possible to increase my students’ awareness of their postsecondary options, especially the affordable options. Many of my students didn’t have the time or money to get this type of exposure themselves, and these resource constraints exist for so many students.

Colleges’ recruitment efforts and strategies are dependent partly on their budgets and priorities. No college has an endless supply of resources, so they are most likely to prioritize high schools with whom they have long-standing relationships, also known as feeder schools, or high schools where the college feels as though they will get the most bang for their buck. A recent study on college recruitment found that more selective public and private colleges devote a majority of their recruitment resources (PDF) to high schools in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods.

With high schools out of operation for the majority of the spring semester, juniors have been deprived of opportunities to increase their college awareness. This is a crucial time for them because college application deadlines are as early as November. Although a larger share of students are experiencing a lack of college exposure, this is a regular occurrence for students who live in areas regularly overlooked by college recruiters, areas where a disproportionate share of Black and Hispanic students live. If a college is committed to having a diverse student body or to serving their community, there should be resources dedicated to building relationships with local high schools that are underresourced or that enroll a disproportionate share of Black and brown students.

Based on our findings, all institutions—but especially public colleges, which arguably have a mission to serve their state and communities—have a charge to improve racial equity and make their student body population more representative of the communities they serve. COVID-19 has forced colleges to adjust in ways that may feel uncomfortable and unconventional, but some institutional policy changes, such as deprioritizing standardized test scores, are working to improve racial equity and provide more college options to students who didn’t choose the family they were born into or the high school they attended. Colleges should take this opportunity to consider what permanent changes they can make to admissions to build a more representative student body.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Education
Tags Higher education Racial and ethnic disparities Racial equity in education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
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