Passing Up Harvard: Qualified Black and Latino Kids Aren't Applying to Top Colleges

According to a new study, minority high school seniors are more likely to stick to safety schools.

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Jul 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

For decades, middle-class parents and high school seniors have placed such importance on applying to the right college or university that the phrase “safety school”—a backup in case the top choice falls through—is part of the higher-ed lexicon. But a recent study shows that for most African American and Latino high school students, the safety school is usually the first choice, if they decide to go to college at all.

According to the study, which was produced by the National Bureau of Economic Research, black and Latino students are more likely than white students to apply to colleges that are closer to their home, that enroll large numbers of minority students, and that have a track record of success with students from their high school. They also typically settle for safer, less challenging colleges and universities when they could have reached higher.

“We consistently find that Hispanic students are least likely of all ethnic groups to apply to college overall and to elite flagship universities in particular,” wrote the study’s authors. The gap persists, according to the report, “even when Hispanic students attend high schools where a majority of students move on to college.” The problem also exists in states like Texas—the subject of the study—in which the top 10 percent of all graduating seniors get automatic admission to the state’s best universities.

The picture for African American college-bound students is more nuanced, according to the study: Blacks apply for college at a rate equal to whites, yet they’re more likely to seek out colleges and universities where kids from their high school have been successful as well as schools with a substantial number of black students. Meanwhile, black and Latino students are far more likely than whites to pick a campus near their families.

While the study’s authors wrote that the source of those trends are unclear, they acknowledge that cultural differences—including the likelihood that black and Latino students in the study are the first in their families to head to college—are factors. However, other issues could be in play—including a lack of guidance through the college selection process as well as the high cost of college applications and conflicting emotions about leaving the family nest.

“I think many of these students may be unfamiliar with the college search process, so they oftentimes stick with what they know,” Lauren Sefton, associate director of admissions at Rhodes College in Memphis, wrote in an email. Sefton is also president of the Southern Association of College Admission Counseling, a regional group of higher-education admissions directors.

“There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the country and it can be overwhelming for students to do the research and expand their search beyond their backyards,” Sefton wrote. “Students may also be uncomfortable with being far away from family. It's comforting to know that family is nearby and familiar friends may already be on campus to help make the transition to college easier.”

The face of college is changing: National studies show that, of 7.3 million undergraduates at four-year public and private institutions, about 20 percent are first-generation students—kids whose parents’ education stopped at or before high school. Of those students, roughly half come from low-income households, and most are minorities.

Given recent statistics, that profile isn’t likely to change for at least a generation or more. Two first-time-ever statistics underscore the point: For the first time in the nation’s history, the public grade-school population is majority-minority, with Hispanics leading the way, and more than half of American schoolchildren qualify for free and reduced lunches.

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At Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Princeton, first-generation students have organized into support and mentoring groups, and the universities themselves are reaching out to the bright children of bus drivers and office clerks.

Sefton said her organization hosts “Camp College,” a series of free workshops designed to help college-bound minorities make informed choices about college. The SACAC, she adds, hosts “Drive-In Workshops” to “help further educate local secondary school counselors, so that they can provide stronger college counseling to their students.”

The ultimate goal, she said, is breaking the statistical cycle by “finding the right fit—academically, socially, and financially—and hopefully encouraging students to explore beyond the schools they already know and that are in their backyard.”