In this Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, photo students walk on the campus of Miami Dade College, in Miami. | AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

New report says America’s public universities are separate and unequal

SHARE New report says America’s public universities are separate and unequal
SHARE New report says America’s public universities are separate and unequal

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce released a scathing report this past week on America’s public universities that exposed startling racial inequities.

Titled “Our Separate and Unequal Public Colleges: How Public Colleges Reinforce White Racial Privilege and Marginalize Black and Latino Students,” the report found a taxpayer-funded postsecondary system that leaves people of color rungs behind.

“Whites have almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the seats in selective public colleges, even though whites make up barely half (54 percent) of the nation’s college-age population,” according to the report’s executive summary.


Only one state in the nation – Florida – has selective public colleges that reflect the Latino college-age population. Blacks are not proportionately represented in selective public colleges in any state, though Kentucky comes close.

The report cites Alabama as “egregiously unbalanced” because “32 of every 100 college-age residents are black, but only seven of every 100 students at the state’s selective public colleges are black.”

Leaders in higher education have long argued that the disparity exists because African-American and Latino students don’t score as high on standardized admission tests as white students.

But the five authors of the report aren’t buying it.

“The use of test results as arbitrary qualifications for entry into selective colleges has made a mockery of educational opportunity. Admission test scores are a dodge: a means of laundering race and class inequality behind a scientific façade of quantitative metrics,” the authors wrote.

They cited as an example: “341,000 black and Latino high school seniors scored above average on standardized college-entrance examinations (SAT), but only 19 percent of them attended a selective college.”

“Meanwhile, 31 percent of White students who scored above average attended a selective college,” the report found.

This report puts into context the “Yes Apply Illinois” student-led coalition challenging the University of Illinois’ requirement that applicants disclose criminal and disciplinary actions on admissions applications.

“These questions were going against the university’s mission regarding using diversity as a vehicle for advancing access, equity and inclusion,” said William Vavrin, a student coordinator.

The group has been demonstrating outside of UIC and speaking out at board of trustee meetings since last year.

“To have to disclose this information has a chilling effect on the application for admissions to the university,” Vavrin argues.

“These potential students are so accustomed to seeing these questions on other types of applications — employment, loans, housing — and used to the answer being no, no, no. It is so important for us to abolish these questions,” he said.

A spokesman for the University of Illinois system did not return a phone call seeking comment.

But earlier this year, Andy Borst, University of Illinois’ director of admissions, said “of nearly 40,000 University of Illinois applications, between 100 and 200 each year say ‘yes’ to the disciplinary questions, and ‘a handful’ of students are denied admission for those reasons,” the Decatur Herald and Review reported.

About 47 percent of the adult population in Illinois had a criminal record in 2014, according to a 2017 report by the National Law Project.

The Common App, an online nonprofit organization that lets students complete one form to apply to any college, announced it would no longer ask students about their criminal history beginning next year.

Meanwhile, the University of Illinois system appears to have dug in its heels.

“We’ve met with multiple administrators, legislators and community leaders. We had an amazing reception from Chicago legislators but haven’t had much positive reception from the university. They have been very reluctant to abolish the questions,” Vavrin said.

This is just one more barrier that will disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos since they are the ones disproportionately arrested and convicted.

It is also troubling that people of color are financing this discriminatory treatment.

All taxpayers fund public universities, like the University of Illinois. There should be no question that people of all races have an equal opportunity to attend these universities.

But blacks overall are less represented in selective public colleges than they were a decade ago and are underrepresented in every state, the Georgetown study found.

These researchers suggest three things that could combat the disparities:

“End the overreliance on standardized test scores; make sure enrollment at selective public colleges reflects a cross-section of the state’s college-age residents; and allocate more state and federal spending to open-access public colleges.”

I would add one more thing:

Stop asking applicants about high school disciplinary records and their criminal background.

Give all new students that same fresh start.

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