April 8, 2020

Study: Underrepresented Minority Students at Public Universities Has Not Kept Pace with Demographic Trends

A new study, by Evans School Professor Mark Long and Evans School 2017 MPA alumna Nicole Bateman, now at the Brookings Institution, showed that in states that have banned affirmative action, the share of underrepresented minorities among students admitted to and enrolling in public universities has steadily lost ground relative to changing demographic trends among those states’ high school graduates.

While prior research has looked at the immediate effects of affirmative action bans, this study evaluates the long-term changes, including the effects of admissions strategies that universities have implemented as alternatives. California, Texas, Washington, and Florida banned affirmative action in the late 1990s, and were followed later by Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma.

Results from the study indicate that alternative policies—such as automatic admission for a certain top percentage of students from each high school (which leverages de facto racial and ethnic segregation of high schools), inclusion of socioeconomic factors in admission decisions, increased outreach and financial support for low-income students, and the elimination of admission preference for the children of alumni—have not been able to fully replace raced-based affirmative action.

“While the share of underrepresented minorities among enrolling undergraduate students has increased since the implementation of alternative policies, this growth is slower than the growth of underrepresented minorities in high schools,” said Long, a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Washington. “When the changing demographics of state high schools are considered, the underrepresentation of Black, Hispanic, and Native American youth in the higher education system is worsening, not improving.”

“Alternative policies and administrative decisions have, so far, been unable to fully replace race-based affirmative action,” Long said.

The researchers note that improvement in many of the underlying conditions that generate underrepresentation in colleges—such as differences in household income, test scores, and incarceration rates—has occurred, but at a slow pace.

“The very slow rate of progress in these underlying conditions is surprising and concerning,” Long said. “For example, if the past 20 years is a guide for future progress, it will take over a thousand years for the Black-White gap in median household income to close. It’s clear that university leaders and state policymakers cannot rely on improvements in the underlying conditions to solve underrepresentation in higher education for many decades to come.”

“University administrators need to rigorously evaluate their policies and be mindful of practices that show promise,” said Long. “They should be challenged to do more and do better.”

“But we should also recognize that many of the underlying conditions are outside of the control of these administrators,” Long added. “If we expect flagship public universities to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of their states, then policymakers must work harder and better to alleviate these pre-college disparities and improve college readiness for underrepresented students.”

The study was published this week in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. Read their full announcement.

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