Copyright (C) 2003. K. Edward Renner. This is a copy of a manuscript scheduled to appear in Academe, Jan./Feb., Vol. 89, No. 1, 2003, 38-43.

Racial Equity and Higher Education

K. Edward Renner

K. Edward Renner is a private consultant who studies institutional change and higher education. He holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois, and elsewhere. His most recent book is The New Agenda for Higher Education. He can be reached at <> or <>.


For the past thirty-five years, U.S. colleges and universities have relied on preferential admissions to achieve racial equity among students. When the practice started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was a young professor at the University of Illinois, and I was excited that, collectively, we in higher education were going to do whatever was necessary to promote racial equity. Today, however, we find ourselves not only far short of this goal, but also without the consensus to support the effort. We are involved instead in a divisive controversy over whether affirmative action is itself a form of discrimination against white people.

There is something terribly wrong with this picture. How could the issue have become so muddled that those opposed to affirmative action are actually winning the battle using "discrimination" as a rhetorical weapon, despite strong and persistent evidence of racial inequality? Each year, the U.S. Census Bureau reports the percentage of people over twenty-five who have completed four or more years of college, broken down by race. I have always considered this percentage the appropriate numerical benchmark of what we have in fact accomplished.

From 1940 to 1970, the rates of college graduation among non-Hispanic whites, blacks, and Hispanics rose slowly, but at a similar pace. Over the past thirty years, access to higher education has increased markedly; however, the biggest gains have been made by whites, not by Hispanics or blacks, as opponents of affirmative action would have us believe. See Figure 1.

Data reflect percentages of people over twenty-five who have completed four or more years of college. Separate data for Hispanics not available before 1970.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Over this same thirty-year period, the gap in the rates of high school graduation among whites and blacks has closed, with blacks achieving a level nearly equal to that of whites. During the same time, Hispanics have held their own. Thus the failure of blacks and Hispanics to obtain higher education at the same rate as whites is even more troublesome than the college graduation data implies, because the relative supply of minority students has been increasing. See Figure 2.

Data reflect percentages of people over twenty-five who have completed four or more years of high school. Separate data for Hispanics not available before 1970.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Indeed, the shifting population demographics in this country should have favored increased minority participation in higher education. The 2000 U.S. census reported that more than 70 percent of those over eighteen are white, and fewer than 30 percent are minorities. Among those under eighteen, however, only 60 percent are white, and 40 percent are minorities. Because of racial differences in the age distribution of the population, we are rapidly moving toward a time when nonwhites and Hispanics will be a majority among the young. It is estimated that by about 2050 minorities will form a majority of the general population. See Figure 3. There is only one valid conclusion: numerically, minority students are less equal now than they were thirty years ago on the criterion that really matters, college graduation.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Socially and politically, we must first understand why we have failed to achieve numerical equality, or parity among the proportion of whites, blacks, and Hispanics with four or more years of college. We then need to re-examine and redefine the issues in order to set acceptable standards for measuring success. As a final step, we need to find the terms of engagement that will move each institution toward the goal of numerical equity.

Numerical Equity

Solutions to racial inequality in higher education must recognize the tie between economics and access to college. The U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Report series show that 10.5 percent of whites, 26.1 percent of blacks, and 25.6 percent of Hispanics have incomes below the poverty line. Higher levels of education result in more income, which increases access to higher education. Neither waiting for education to end confinement to poverty, nor on the end of poverty to provide equal access to college, will solve the problem of racial inequality in higher education.

One aspect of poverty that contributes to this problem is the huge "digital divide" in our public schools. The National Center for Educational Statistics reported in Internet Access in Public Schools and Classrooms, 1994-1999, that in schools with minority enrollments below 6 percent, 74 percent of the instructional classrooms have Internet access. But in schools that have minority enrollments of more than 50 percent, only 43 percent of the instructional classrooms have Internet access. In schools in which fewer than 11 percent of students are eligible for a reduced-price lunch, 74 percent of the instructional classrooms have Internet access, but in schools in which more than 71 percent of students are eligible for such lunches, only 39 percent of the instructional classrooms have Internet access.

Policies that are presented as "race neutral," in the sense that they do not explicitly target a particular race, but have differential racial consequences in terms of access, also contribute to racial inequality in higher education. Examples include special admissions consideration for children of alumni or offspring of big financial contributors to a university. Another such policy is state-sponsored prepaid tuition plans; colleges and universities have invested considerable resources in setting up such plans and lobbying for tax-sheltering provisions for them.

Many justifications exist for prepaid tuition plans, and none, as far as I know, has stated a goal of ensuring greater white participation in higher education. But the fact remains that the plans enable more white families than minority families to send their children to college. The plans are not unlike the efforts many years ago by police departments to use height, weight, and strength standards to exclude women as police officers while giving other explanations for the intent of the practice. With police recruiting, we have already made the determination that discriminatory outcomes are objective, illegal, and unconstitutional, no matter what the expressed intentions may have been.

Many other "race neutral" educational policies have contributed to the relative white advantage. The effects of grade inflation over the past several decades benefited those already enrolled. Existing students, through artificially high retention rates, were "floated" over the growing "flood" of minority students during the period of the "demographic depression" at the end of the baby boom when there were fewer eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds. Now that the arrival of the children of the baby boomers has increased the number of traditional-aged college students, there is a growing movement to tighten internal standards, raise entrance requirements, and end remedial courses and special admissions in the name of cost cutting and raising standards.

To have made so little progress in ending racial inequality in education through the past decade of the "peace dividend" is especially discouraging. Instead, we have raised our political resistance to equal access and given tax reductions to those who have already benefited from the expanded access of the past thirty years. Now, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the peace dividend is gone, budget cuts in social programs reduce the support available to counter inequalities, the cost of a real war has increased military spending, and an economic recession has reduced revenues. These effects will be felt to the relative disadvantage of minorities for years to come. We can expect an intensification of, not a drop in, the growing racial inequality in access to higher education.

The effects of the internal polices of individual colleges have combined with external economic and social conditions to more than offset the limited influence of affirmative action admissions. Whatever small advantage minorities experienced through preferential admissions has been undercut by other factors correlated with race, which have given even greater preferential advantage to whites and the status quo.

Context for Inequality

We should not try to seek a simple explanation for the failure to achieve numerical equity because none exists. Instead, we must identify and document the many historical elements that contributed to the situation and address those that apply at each institution. This is an analytical task for which we have the necessary information.

As I noted in a March-April 1998 article in Change, enrollment data for the 1993-94 academic year revealed that most black students are educated mainly at few historically black colleges or a handful of institutions located in major metropolitan areas. There is massive physical (geographic) and qualitative (institutional type) segregation in higher education, and, as in the days of old-style segregation, most minorities attend institutions of lower status.

In January 2002 the National Center for Educational Statistics released the results of an annual survey showing enrollment data by race for the 1998-99 academic year. The data, which I summarize below, are based on the 3,378 colleges and universities that have been accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and classified by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which categorizes institutions by type. The classification includes two-year institutions that award the associate degree, but it excludes vocational schools that offer diplomas for real estate, hair dressing, and so on. For my summary, I also excluded foreign students, leaving 13,879,135 U.S. residents in the analysis.

Little changed between 1993-94 and 1998-99, the most recent year for which information is available. Although historically black colleges and universities constitute only 3 percent of all U.S. institutions of higher education, they educate 14 percent of the nation's black students. The remaining 1,320,073 black students attend the other 3,276 institutions. But even among these institutions, black and white students are segregated. For example, of the thirty colleges and universities that have the largest absolute numbers of black students, twenty-three grant only a two-year associate degree, and only three are research universities (Temple and Wayne State Universities and the University of Maryland). Twenty-seven of the thirty universities are located in or adjacent to a large urban area.

A similar picture holds for Hispanic students. Nearly one in ten counted in U.S. statistics is of Puerto Rican origin and enrolled in a college or university in Puerto Rico. Of the thirty colleges and universities that have the largest number of Hispanic students, seventeen grant two-year associate degrees, and only one (the University of New Mexico) is a research university. Nineteen are located in or adjacent to a large urban area.

In contrast, of the thirty colleges and universities that have the largest absolute numbers of white students, only one offers a two-year associate degree, and twenty-six are research universities; only six of these institutions are located in or adjacent to a major urban area. Just 5 percent of the students at these thirty institutions are black, and an additional 5 percent are Hispanic--even though many of the institutions (University of Illinois, University of Texas, Ohio State University, Louisiana State University, the University of Florida, and many others) are located in states with large minority populations.

Terms of Engagement

So where do we go from here? At the very least, we need to rethink and redefine what we are doing and why we are doing it. First, we must abandon our script of self-deception, of pretending that progress was being made when we know, or should have known, that was not so. We can no longer use statistics we know are misleading, such as the number of minority students enrolled or the percentage increase in minority enrollment over the previous year. These figures are meaningless and have falsely fed the forces that are now successfully opposing racial equity in higher education.

Thirty years of affirmative action, largely as preferential admissions, has failed, and it has failed at individual institutions. No matter how hard that pill is to swallow, institutions need to be more straightforward and accountable about the policies and practices that have contributed to the relative white advantage on their campuses. Documenting these factors, as part of institutional affirmative action audits, will form the basis for local remedial actions.

We should also stop using "diversity" as the primary line of justification for selective admissions. It is a weak argument that has little practical validity. Minorities who make it to a "white" college or university already know how to function in a white world. Further, the main value of "diversity" is for white students to learn from minorities. This uses blacks and Hispanics for white ends. It should hardly be surprising that blacks on our campuses often prefer to associate with other blacks and that, in practical terms, physical proximity fails to foster social and educational diversity.

The opponents of affirmative action have it correct. The issue is equality, not diversity. Inequality is the constitutional issue, and the goal is numerical parity. Sometimes, however, constitutional equality under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is based on recognizing and accepting differences, such as gender differences in height, weight, and strength in the selection criteria for police officers. Applying a standard of "no difference" to a means of selection often produces inequality. Achieving "no difference" in the outcome of a process often requires accepting difference in the means of selection.

Other precedents besides those established in employment discrimination law exist to uphold the standard that equality should be the outcome of a procedure or practice. For example, we used to have no choice but to enter buildings by climbing steps and opening manual doors. The outcome of this practice was differential access for a class of people--the physically challenged. So we legislatively prescribed that for the outcome to be equal, we needed to change our practice by requiring ramps and other provisions, which enabled broader access.

Many, and more compelling, illustrations of the same principle involve race within higher education. For example, several years ago Cornell University set up "program houses"--dormitories for particular racial groups. In October 1996 the U.S. Department of Education ruled that this arrangement did not violate federal civil rights laws and could continue. Yet, those opposed to the dormitories were successful in using the language of the civil rights movement to limit blacks from voluntarily segregating themselves from whites.

Rebecca Parker explained in the September 12, 1997, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education why ethnic housing was important to her as a black college student. She chose a predominately white college because she "would probably always live in a world where whites were in the majority." What Parker did not expect was the isolation of an "environment full of people who were different from me." At college, she made friends who were also black. "We were drawn to one another by the natural human tendency to seek out other people in similar circumstances." Of course, white students experience such familiarity without any special arrangements. Their neighbors and classmates share the same music, tastes, and experiences. This is no small matter. Anxiety is the number one cause of first-year dropout, and effective support is the best means of retaining students.

The principle of equality demands that minority students receive the same opportunity that white students experience. In the Cornell example, different racial housing helps make the experiences that really count the same, which is true equality. To make it harder for minorities than it is for whites, through the application of a "no difference" procedural rule in the name of equity, in fact contributes to a difference in outcome that disadvantages minorities.

If white students truly want to learn how to live gracefully side by side with minorities, all they need to do is to live in the black residence space to which, of course, they are entitled to equal access. Similarly, any black student has equal access to the regular residence space (which, to be clear and equal, should be designated as non-Hispanic white). When the day comes that, statistically, "no difference" exists in the racial composition of the two spaces, then this form of affirmative action will no longer be needed.

Affirmative action was never intended to consist only of preferential admissions. No one could seriously think that such a small effort could have a revolutionary effect on such a massive and complicated problem as racial inequality, especially in the face of other policies and preferential practices in the opposite direction. As I have noted, we can point to and document many reasons for racial inequality in higher education--such as unequal computer access, prohibitions against racial housing, grade inflation, prepaid tuition, and the growing emphasis on merit-based over need-based financial aid, to name a few. Taking steps to correct the effects of these practices, however, means that colleges and universities must stop hiding behind the justification of "diversity" as an admissions policy. They must be more forthcoming about how unequal educational policies, over the period of so-called affirmative action, have favored white admissions. Equity is the issue.

Local Solutions

"Higher education" is not an entity with a geographic location, a president, and a board. It is composed instead of individual institutions, each with its own board, administration, mission, location, and admission policies. Although solving the problem of inequality is national and general, the required actions are local and institution specific. There are no external "others" who will resolve the issues for us.

We could upgrade historically black colleges and universities to world-class standards with an infusion of computers, labs, and extra teachers to provide a personalized education second to none. That would immediately serve one of every seven black students. Premier universities could help by lending (free of charge) a black college or university several of their truly outstanding teachers each year for the next decade or so. At the prime of my academic career, I would have offered to participate in such an effort, and many of my colleagues would have done the same. Imagine how exciting the learning could be in small seminars and research labs with eminent scholars and resources in every discipline. I expect many of the black students so touched would set their sights higher on graduate school, and that many prestigious institutions would have their foot in the door for direct graduate school recruiting. If we had done this for the past thirty years, where would be today?

We could put computers with Internet access in every black church, community center, and inner-city school serving minority youth, along with tutors from a local college or university. Black and Hispanic students are already enrolled in these urban institutions, and if we paid them well for being tutors, even more minority students could afford to attend. White students truly interested in having a diversity experience could stay in the inner cities to join an already-diverse campus and participate in the tutoring program instead of fleeing to the higher educational suburbs.

We could have two types of tenure-track position descriptions for new faculty: one traditional category based on research, training, and academic publications, and another based on the "scholarship of engagement," already well defined by education scholar Ernest L. Boyer and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. This second track would be for individuals who are effective in establishing ties with minority communities and attracting and supporting minority students. They would also have to be eligible for a tenure-track position, which would usually mean having a Ph.D. Having such a track would eliminate the practice of not hiring minority candidates, and probably some inner-city whites, because they are "less qualified" by traditional standards. Of course, a significant number of positions would have to be allocated to this new track, and a tenure stream and evaluation process would have to reward behavior appropriate to it. For example, being a regular columnist for the local newspaper, effectively linking the university to the community, would have to count as much as becoming the editor of a professional journal.

In the name of fairness, we could discontinue all special admissions, such as those that go to children of university donors, which have largely benefited whites. But doing so is probably neither an acceptable nor a wise suggestion. Special admissions have played an important role in enriching campus life in many areas, such as sports, music, and drama, and should not be abandoned without careful deliberation about the cost to the overall quality of campus life. This is where the diversity piece fits into the larger equity puzzle. Special admissions should be an "all" (a deliberately selected and justified set of categories) or "none" choice. We should not use double speak to hide either what we are doing or the special needs or contributions of any of the preferentially admitted students (for example, to a marching band or a theater program). For minority special admissions, we should provide required financial aid (for example, by hiring the students to be the tutors for the inner-city computer program) and remedial help if necessary. Moreover, we should count the success of racial-quota admissions by graduation rate and not simply keep up the annual head count with replacements.

Nothing I have proposed is particularly expensive. There are many feasible local possibilities. But finding acceptable solutions must be a national imperative, dictated by both population demographics as a practical matter and social justice as a moral matter.

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