Higher Ed Is Still Pretty Segregated

When it comes to racial segregation in higher education, the good news—according to a new paper from a professor at Georgetown University—is that four-year colleges are now less segregated than they were in the 1960s. The bad news is that they’re still pretty segregated. Here are the key findings:

  • “[In] 1968, the typical white student attended a college that was 2.3 percent black. But by 2009, the typical white student attended a college that was 9.8 percent black. This percentage gain is much larger than overall black enrollment during this period, which also rose, from 5.5 percent to 13.7 percent.” In other words, it’s still the case that black students are clustered at a smaller number of colleges.
  • “[C]olleges in the South remain more segregated than those in any other region when measured by dissimilarity or by black exposure to whites.” Thanks largely to the presence of historically black colleges and universities, black students are more likely to go to schools with large numbers of black students, while most whites continue to go to schools with overwhelmingly white populations.
  • Insofar that there’s been a decline in segregation in the South, it’s because fewer black students are attending HBCU’s than did in the past.
  • Affirmative actions might be responsible for a decrease in segregation, as black students move from more selective colleges (with fewer African Americans) to less selective ones.

On top of all of this, segregation seems to be between colleges, not within them; white and black students at the same colleges tend to pursue the same fields, though there isn’t much data on living arrangements and extracurricular activities.

It should be said that, in higher education, segregation affects job opportunities for students of color—it limits their networks, and as such, their access.

Taken as a whole, however, this data doesn’t surprise. If anything, it reflects the broader fact that the United States is still fairly segregated in its social arrangements. Most whites live in white neighborhoods, go to white churches, and associate with other whites, and the same is true of blacks and Latinos. One possible consequence of this? Without integration, negative attitudes toward minority groups can increase and calcify. To wit, here’s a recent survey from the Associated Press:

In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.

The question for the next few years is whether this was a momentary spike as a result of a contentious presidential election, or a real reflection of our social landscape. In all honesty—given the retrenchment of civil rights programs—I’m not optimistic.