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CNHI Special Projects

July 31, 2013

Report says minorities and whites follow unequal college paths

The nation's system of higher education is growing more racially polarized even as it attracts more minorities: White students are increasingly clustering at selective institutions, while blacks and Hispanics are mostly attending open-access and community colleges, according to a new report.

The paths offer widely disparate opportunities and are leading to widely disparate outcomes, said the report released Wednesday by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Students at the nation's top 468 colleges are the beneficiaries of much more spending — anywhere from two to five times what is spent on instruction at open-access and community colleges. And students at top schools are far more likely to graduate than students from other institutions, even when they are equally prepared, according to the report. In addition, graduates of top schools are far more likely than others to go on to graduate school.

The financial implications of those differences are huge: A worker with an advanced degree is expected to earn an average of $2.1 million more in his or her lifetime than a non-graduate, the report said. Also, the report said graduates of selective colleges earn an average of $67,000 a year 10 years after graduation, about $18,000 a year more than their counterparts who graduate from nonselective schools.

"The American postsecondary system increasingly has become a dual system of racially separate pathways, even as overall minority access to the postsecondary system has grown dramatically," said Jeff Strohl, the Georgetown center's director of research, who co-authored the report.

The report focused on a comparison of whites to Hispanic and African American students. Data on the experiences of Asian American and Native American students were too limited for an identical analysis, the authors said.

The report raises disturbing questions about the efficacy of higher education policies pursued by a long line of presidents aiming to encourage more Americans to attend college. President Barack Obama has talked about improved access to higher education as a means of closing the nation's growing income inequality. But the Georgetown report illustrates that higher education is doing more to replicate inequality than eliminate it.

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