Inequity in Admissions Limits Opportunities for Minority Students

Inequity in Admissions Limits Opportunities for Minority Students
portrait of Jessica Bryant
By Jessica Bryant

Published on August 18, 2021

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Increasing diversity at postsecondary institutions has long been a goal in higher education. However, a recent report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) suggests that many universities are undercutting campus diversity through inequitable recruitment, admissions, and enrollment practices that restrict opportunities for large groups of minority students.

In the IHEP report, researchers identified multiple facets of the admissions process that exclude minorities. The report also proposed solutions that could lead to a more inclusive and equitable student population.

Traditional Recruitment Practices Prioritize Wealthy Students

Colleges and universities use the recruitment process as a direct pathway to enrollment. Recruiting is expensive and laborious, so recruiters often target prospective students who are most likely to help them meet enrollment and revenue goals. In some cases, that means sacrificing other standards — like those set for diversity and equity.

A few of the most popular recruitment practices include high school visits, hosted campus visits, and email outreach. Schools prioritize various methods of recruitment by determining who are the best potential students to target. In a recent National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) survey, more than 80% of respondents labeled email and campus visits as considerably important methods for outreach.

Source: Institute for Higher Education Policy, adapted from NACAC's 2019 State of College Admission report

Public universities have a tendency to target out-of-state students, as those individuals pay double or triple the amount in tuition and fees that an in-state student pays.

According to IHEP, research shows that recruiters working out of state often focus on communities with a high proportion of white and Asian high school students from upper-middle-class and wealthy backgrounds. Out-of-state communities with larger populations of Black, Latino/a, Indigenous, underrepresented Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and low-income students receive far fewer visits from recruiters.

But it's not just standard outreach from recruiters that keeps the focus on wealthier students. Demonstrated interest policies contribute to the practice as well.

Students who are recruited by universities have a better chance to demonstrate interest in a specific school over students who have not been approached by recruiters. When that interest is considered during the admissions process, it benefits students who can afford to make campus visits and have better access to virtual engagement with admissions officials.

IHEP recommends that schools begin to recruit in diverse areas, offer alternative recruitment opportunities to students in rural areas, and prioritize in-state students, as well as returning adult and community college transfer students.

Early and Legacy Admissions Are Exclusionary

Students who apply to postsecondary institutions during the early decision period are often white, wealthy, and more likely to be admitted than students who apply during the normal deadline period. By applying for early admission, students agree to enroll at the university if admitted. Low-income students often want to compare aid packages from various schools before making a decision about which to attend.

Source: Institute for Higher Education Policy

According to the IHEP report, research shows that wealthy students apply early decision almost twice as often as low-income students.

But it's not just early admissions that have a tendency to exclude low-income students and students of color. Legacy admissions also often favor white, wealthy students. Researchers estimate that students with legacies at selective colleges and universities are about two to four times more likely to be admitted than nonlegacy students.

Though legacy admissions have been strongly criticized in recent years, with some schools no longer considering legacy status during the admissions process, many schools continue the practice. Some universities have argued that failing to consider legacy applicants could put fundraising goals (which alumni often help meet) in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, the United States' higher education system has historically excluded racial and ethnic minorities, so these individuals are far less likely to have legacy status today. IHEP calls for an end to considering legacy status during the admissions process. They recommend that schools instead consider an applicant's first-generation status, which could open the door to a more diverse student body.

Standardized Testing Contributes to Gaps in Admittance

Standardized college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT have long been a required part of the college admissions process. However, in recent years critics have challenged the effectiveness of these tests to fairly and accurately assess students' capabilities.

Both the SAT and ACT were derived from racist aptitude tests that were meant to prove the superiority of one race over another. Today, white and Asian students still have an advantage when taking these tests, as well as students' whose families make more than $200,000 a year. Meanwhile, Black, Latino/a, Indigenous, and underrepresented AAPI students have a tendency to score lowest on these exams.

The SAT and ACT were derived from racist aptitude tests and white students still have an advantage when taking these tests.

Both the SAT and ACT are expensive to prepare for, leaving low-income students at a disadvantage. IHEP estimates that a single student might spend up to $10,160 on test prep books, classes or tutoring, and testing fees.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many universities made it optional for applicants to include test scores, and now some schools are removing the requirement from the admissions process altogether. But until all or most schools do away with these tests, underrepresented students will continue to be at a disadvantage during the admissions process.

The Importance of an Equitable Student Body

If schools make a greater effort to create a diverse and equitable student body, they can help curb employment and wage gaps. Currently, white and Asian students are significantly more likely than Black, Latino/a, and Indigenous students to earn a college degree. They are also more likely to earn higher wages, have higher levels of employment, and hold upper-level positions in the workforce.

Rethinking the college admissions process and the ways in which it creates barriers for underrepresented students is the first step to creating an equitable student body and equalizing educational attainment.


Feature Image: Weekend Images Inc. / E+ / Getty Images

If colleges work to boost educational outcomes for people of color, their livelihoods and society as a whole will benefit, according to a new report. After temporarily dropping SAT/ACT requirements due to COVID-19, some schools, including the University of California, are making the changes permanent. More students of color are going to college, but graduation rates remain low. Many colleges fail to support and retain Black and Hispanic students.