'Separate And Unequal': Racial Divides In Higher Ed

A recent report suggests that more white students are heading to top tier colleges, while their black and Hispanic counterparts are turning to low tuition, open-access institutions. Host Michel Martin speaks with Georgetown's Anthony Carnevale, about what the numbers mean. This segment initially aired July 31, 2013 on Tell Me More.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we speak with a designer who says a good suit should make a man radiate confidence. That's in just a few minutes. But first, as students across the country head off to college, we want to talk about the opportunities and limits of higher education. A college education has long been called the first step up the economic ladder, for many people, particularly people of color. But there's also evidence that the kind of college you attend matters.

Anthony Carnevale is one of the authors of a recent report on the issue. It's called "Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege." He's the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. I caught up with Professor Carnevale recently and I began by asking him what he was trying to capture through his investigation.

ANTHONY CARNEVALE: In the end, what we were trying to figure out was the impact of going to more or less selective colleges on the future income and economic success of young people. We found, as others have before us, that, in fact, that while more and more minorities are going on to college, that the system itself was becoming even more unequal. That is, we were getting more and more access, and access was bringing more and more inequality, and the inequality mattered.

MARTIN: So the good news is that African-Americans and Hispanics scored big gains in their access to post-secondary education overall. The bad news, according to the report, is that both groups are losing ground in moving to the most selective colleges relative to their growing population. You know, a lot of people would say that that's because these students are just not as well prepared. Is that true?

CARNEVALE: It is in many cases. The reality that the economic and educational mechanisms, while colorblind in the United States, at least in theory, were very clear that they have a very disparate, negative impact on African-American and Latino and low-income students.

So they're not race-neutral or class-neutral. But one of the other myths is that there aren't young people out there - African-American and Latino, for example - who are perfectly qualified and never get to go to selective colleges. We found 111,000 African-American and Latinos who had scored above the median in the SAT or the ACT and never got to go to one of these schools. And at least, within eight years, had not achieved a bachelor's degree.

MARTIN: Let me read the relevant piece from the report in case people are wondering how this plays out. According to the report, many African-Americans and Hispanics are unprepared for college, but whites who are equally unprepared still get more postsecondary opportunities. Why is that? Is it because their parents can pay their way? Is that student likely to go to a school with better advising so that the advisor maybe, perhaps, knows and has relationships with a full range of schools that would be likely to take that student? I mean, how does it work?

CARNEVALE: It's all of those things and more. There's some subtle features to this, which is the messages you get in life. And if you're a white kid, especially if you're a white male, you get some very positive messages - can-do messages, I guess you might call them. If you're a minority or low-income, you don't get those messages.

MARTIN: So what's the answer here?

CARNEVALE: The difficult piece to all of this is that, arguably, bigotry is a thing of the past in America, and to some extent, it certainly is. There's still evidence of discrimination, both by class and by race - more by race, actually. But what we're living through is a period - we've come to a point where the basic economic and educational mechanisms, especially as they act on vulnerable people, and historically African-Americans, Latinos and low-income people are vulnerable people - that these mechanisms, while they're race and class blind, they have very disparate negative impacts on African-Americans, Latinos and low-income kids. The - in a sense, it sort of sanitizes those effects because they are not about Bull Connor or George Wallace, they're about the basic economic and educational mechanisms in the society.

MARTIN: What is your prescription here?

CARNEVALE: In the final analysis, this problem has grown far too big for affirmative action. Affirmative action is a good thing. It's helpful, but in many respects, it's a Band-Aid over a gaping wound that is becoming more and more serious. And that is the - what is essentially occurring is that we're getting more and more racial and economic disparity in American society. Those kinds of inequalities never result from any one difficulty, whether it's education, whether it's your neighborhood, whether it's your parents' jobs and your family income, your housing. In the end, the only way to get at this multiple set of interconnecting forces that produce disadvantage is to come at them all at once, which is to say, we need decent housing programs, decent programs to produce upward mobility in schools.

From my own biases as an economist, I think the first thing we need is jobs for the parents 'cause that produces intergenerational effects that are undeniable. So I think in the end, it is a difference in attitude about this. There is no little green pill, but we know what to do about this. We know what disadvantage looks like and we know what privilege look like, and both are complex sets of forces that are mutually reinforcing.

MARTIN: Anthony Carnevale is director of Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. His report is called "Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege." He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CARNEVALE: Thank you.

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