The nation's flagship universities -- including most of those across the South -- are serving disproportionately fewer minority and low-income students today than they did in the past. And, unfortunately, the situation appears to be growing worse.
That's the finding of a new report from the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit that aims to make schools and colleges work for all of the young people they serve. Titled "Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation's Premier Public Universities", the report documents how flagship and other "research extensive" universities have taken financial aid resources away from the low-income students who need help to attend college in order to compete for high-income students.
"At a time when more and more low-income and minority students are preparing for college, it is disturbing that many of our most prestigious colleges and universities are turning away from them," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust and a co-author of the report.
Of the 50 universities examined in the report, only 11 received an "A" or "B" grade for their efforts to provide access to minority students, and the only school among them that could be considered Southern is West Virginia University. At the same time, only 11 of the 50 schools received an "A" or "B" grade for their efforts to attract low-income students, with the University of Kentucky the only one in the South.
Meanwhile, the only Southern schools showing improvements in either minority or low-income access were the University of Delaware, University of Florida, University of Mississippi, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
As a growing number of K-12 leaders are taking steps to prepare most of their students for college, plans to attend are increasing among all students -- and the gains are particularly large among minority and low-income students. Unfortunately, just as more young people are turning toward college, many colleges are turning away from them, the report observes:
Public higher education has a rich, proud tradition of serving as an engine of social mobility, and generations of striving Americans have long aspired to attend its institutions. State flagships sit atop this pyramid of opportunity, offering the hope that students from humble origins can learn alongside talented students from all backgrounds. This was America's promise: work hard, excel in school and you, too, could follow your dreams into your state's flagship university.
Over time, however, that compact has been broken, and in its place has come something quite different: the relentless pursuit not of expanded opportunity, but of increased selectivity. Rated less for what they accomplish with the students they let in than by how many students they keep out, many of these flagship institutions have become more and more enclaves for the most privileged of their state's young people.
Even as the number of low-income and minority high school graduates in their states grows, often by leaps and bounds, these institutions are becoming disproportionately whiter and richer.
The report makes several recommendations for what universities can and should do to improve access for academically talented minority and low-income students. They include ensuring university leaders know their institution's statistics on access and success, taking steps to increase the success of students already admitted, aggressively recruiting talented low-income students and students of color, reallocating institutional aid to the truly needy, reaching out to dropouts who left in good standing, and committing to preparing more high-quality teachers for high-poverty and high-minority schools.