Printer Friendly

The effects of race on college selectivity.

In 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States rendered a landmark decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case that has since influenced (either indirectly or directly) all local, state, as well as national educational policy decisions impacting the educational opportunity of African Americans. To be sure, the Supreme Court's observation that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" has paved the way for subsequent legislation and court cases (e.g., Civil Rights Act of 1964, Adams v. Richardson) that made it possible for African American students to attend the same schools as White students (Bickel, 1998). The primary rationale argued by the plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case was that schools attended by African American students had inferior resources that negatively impacted the quality of educational experiences and educational outcomes for African American students. The Supreme Court agreed and noted, "We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place." While the integration of elementary and secondary schools still remains an elusive goal in some parts of the United States (Orfield, Bachmeier, James, & Eitle, 1997), the effects of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case clearly played a major role in reducing some of the overt discriminatory educational practices that were once commonplace in America.

Prior to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, postsecondary educational opportunities for African Americans were severly limited (Anderson, 1988; Lagemann & Miller, 1996). During this time, Whites attended college in far greater numbers than African Americans (Hill, 1985). In addition, White students, spurred by the burgeoning growth of public land-grant colleges as well as private selective institutions, were able to select from an increasing variety of college majors and institutional types (Rudolph, 1990). Thus, following the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, and despite some of the positive effects the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case had on elementary and secondary educational experiences for African Americans, opportunities for African Americans to attend predominantly White postsecondary institutions were very limited after the decision was rendered (Fleming, 1976).

In an effort to improve educational opportunities for African Americans, scholars have studied the effects of desegregation in general and the effects of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case in particular on African American students (Brown, 1999; Byrd-Chichester, 2000; Murphy, 1995). In addition, throughout the years, the issue of access has been a reoccurring theme in a variety of research journals in higher education. However, despite the importance of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case on American education, research has not adequately addressed the impact that the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case had on improving the opportunity structure in American higher education. This study sought to explore this topic and look further into the impact of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case to address the issue of access into selective institutions of higher education for African American students. While this issue was not the central focus of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, it is undeniable that the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case led to subsequent legislation (e.g., Civil Rights Act of 1964), and related court cases (e.g., Adams v. Richardson) that impacted the enrollment of African American students into postsecondary institutions. Recently another significant court decision related to access in higher education was rendered by the Supreme Court of the United States. More specifically, in 2003, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Gratz v. Bollinger that diversity may constitute a "compelling" interest and may be appropriately pursued in public institutions of higher education. Gratz v. Bollinger is another landmark legal decision that will be discussed for many years and will be the subject of countless articles, books, and debates. Built on the legacy and intent of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, the decision in Gratz v. Bollinger also has the potential of continuing and furthering the educational opportunities for African Americans in higher education.

Purpose and Rationale of the Study

In Bowen and Bok's (1998) landmark book, The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, data were presented that suggested that race-based admissions policies at the nation's selective colleges were effective in producing large gains to African American students, higher education, and society. Indeed, Bowen and Bok's findings were persuasive in that they suggested that race must continue to be a primary factor in the admissions process at selective institutions because race-based admissions policies increased the likelihood that African American students would attend selective institutions. As a way of further illuminating the issue of access in selective institutions, the present study sought to examine differences in the college selectivity of the institution attended by African American and White students. Despite the nation's growing concern about race discrimination in American higher educational institutions, this area of inquiry has not received much attention in the research literature.

We do know, however, from a small body of research literature that there appears to be a distinct pattern of attendance at less selective colleges for African American students and that White students are more likely to attend a highly selective college (Kingston, 1984; Walster, Cleary, & Clifford, 1971). Moreover, a descriptive report confirms this enrollment pattern using a national sample of college-bound high school graduates. According to a National Center for Education Statistics' report, entitled, Who Goes to America's Highly Ranked "National" Universities?, African American high school graduates were less likely than White high school graduates to enroll in "Tier 1" institutions (Owings, Madigan, & Daniel, 1998). Also, data from Owings et al.'s study showed that across all of the institutional types analyzed in the study (e.g., national universities, regional universities, national liberal arts colleges, and regional liberal arts colleges) White students were more likely than African American students to enroll in "Tier 1" institutions.

As stated previously, the purpose of this study was to estimate the extent to which African American students attended colleges where the average academic ability of the institution's student body was lower than colleges attended by White students. To be sure, the purpose of this study resonates with Bowen and Bok (1998) who noted "In colleges and professional schools that admit nearly every qualified applicant, there is little to debate (although there may be arguments over how "qualified" should be defined, and whether the same definition is applied to White and Black candidates)" (p. liv). This study is concerned with the latter issue and seeks to determine if African American students and White students were equally likely to enroll in selective colleges when a primary variable used in the college admissions process (i.e., college entrance examination scores) was statistically controlled.

This study is important in light of data which shows that African American students attending the nation's selective colleges have higher graduation rates than African American students at less selective colleges (African-American College Graduation Rates, 1999). The present study is also significant because it may help researchers and educational policymakers better understand the complexities associated with diversifying selective institutions of higher education as well as the impact of desegregation court cases (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka) and related legislation and policies (e.g., Affirmative Action) on educational opportunity in America. Kingston (1984) added:
   Any complete assessment of equality of opportunity
   in higher education must recognize the academic
   hierarchy and examine patterns of access to
   schools at its various levels. Once consideration of
   institutional "quality" are taken into account, racial
   disparities become sharply evident. (p. 47)

Thus, this study will identify the extent to which the term "qualified" is being employed on a consistent basis to all students regardless of their racial or ethnic background by analyzing data to determine if African American students with similar qualifications as their White counterparts (as measured by college entrance examinations) are more likely to attend less academically selective colleges.


College BASE

To investigate the extent to which race impacts college selectivity, data were analyzed from a large, multi-institutional sample of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors who completed the College Basic Academic Subjects Examination (College BASE) (Osterlind et al., 2004). The College BASE sample used in this study consists of African American and White undergraduate students enrolled in 56 four-year colleges and universities located in 13 states across the country. There were both public and private institutions in the sample, consisting of liberal arts colleges, regional colleges and universities, and research universities. The majority of the students in the sample were full-time students between the ages of 19 to 22.

The College BASE is a criterion-referenced achievement test designed to measure the extent to which students are proficient in using skills and knowledge bases that are linked to the culmination of general education course work (Osterlind, 1997; Osterlind et al., 2004). The College BASE measures cognitive development in four subject areas: (a) English, (b) mathematics, (c) science, and (d) social studies. Each subject was composed of clusters or separate subjects which together form overall subject scores. Within each subject cluster, the College BASE measured distinct skills and knowledge areas. The College BASE also measured three analytical abilities that were integrated across each major subject area: (a) interpretive reasoning, (b) strategic reasoning, and (c) adaptive reasoning (Osterlind, 1997).

College BASE Sample

The study sample was comprised of students from 56 four-year postsecondary institutions with complete data on all variables. Only those institutions were included that had tested a minimum of 50 students. Because the data analyses focused on the effects of race on college selectivity, the sample analyzed consisted of those African American and White students from the 56 institutions who completed the College BASE. Data from other students in the sample were not used. The College BASE analyses in the present study were based on: 2,104 African American students and 24,132 White students. The African American student sample included 1,434 women and 670 men. The White student sample included 15,552 women and 8,580 men. The sample was comprised of approximately 47% seniors, 22% juniors, 17% sophomores and 14% freshmen. Consequently, a weighting algorithm was developed that yielded a sample that was approximately 25% for each year in school.

College BASE Variables

Students who completed the College BASE self-reported their SAT or ACT test score. For the present study, all SAT scores were converted to ACT scores (Dorans, 1999; Maxey & Lenning, 1974). The dependent variable used in this study was based on a study by Astin and Henson (1977). Based on their study, college selectivity was defined as "the average academic ability of an institution's student body" (p. 1). The average ACT score of each institution in the sample was used to estimate this variable. More specifically, each individual student in the sample was given the average ACT score of his or her institution based on the average ACT score of the students at each institution in the student sample. The mean for this variable was 22.95. The standard deviation for this variable was 1.99. Because each of the 56 schools in the institutional sample had at least 50 students from that school in the sample, this estimate was deemed appropriate for this exploratory study. Precedent for using this method to estimate college selectivity is well-established in the higher education research literature (Flowers, Osterlind, Pascarella, & Pierson, 2001; Pascarella, Palmer, Moye, & Pierson, 2001; Whitt, Edison, Pascarella, Nora, & Terenzini, 1999).

In accordance with the purpose of the study, the independent variable used in the data analyses was race (coded: 1 = African American, 0 = White). In addition, an individual's self-reported ACT score was used as a control variable. The average ACT score of the total sample was 22.93 (Standard Deviation = 5.71). The average ACT score of the African American student sample was 20.60 (Standard Deviation = 6.13). The average ACT score of the White student sample was 23.14 (Standard Deviation = 5.62). All statistical results were reported significant at p < .001.

Analytical Procedures

The dependent variable was regressed on the independent variable while statistically controlling for the effects of a student's college entrance examination score. Because the major purpose of this study was to estimate the impact of race on the selectivity of the college attended, separate regressions were run for male and female students. Effect sizes were also computed for all statistically significant results from the multivariate analyses (Cohen, 1988). More specifically, an effect size was computed by dividing the unstandardized regression coefficient by the pooled standard deviation of the outcome measure (Hays, 1994).


Table 2 summarized the estimated direct effects of race on the measure of college selectivity (Astin & Henson, 1977) of the institution attended (i.e., average precollege ACT score at the institution attended) using the College BASE student sample. As Table 2 indicated, the independent variable was significant and negative for the female and male samples (B = -. 17 for females, and B = -.37 for males). Effect sizes ranged from -.09 for females to -.18 for males. Thus, consistent with previous evidence, these results suggested that African American students were more likely to attend colleges and universities with students who performed lower on the ACT.


Direct effects were estimated by regressing the average institutional cognitive ability of the students on race and precollege academic ability for the female and male student samples. The results of these analyses revealed that in the presence of a statistical control variable for academic ability, African American students were more likely to attend colleges and universities that were not as academically selective as those attended by White students. In addition, results indicated that the difference in college selectivity by race was more pronounced for male students than it was for female students. Despite yielding statistically significant results, the effect size information reported in Table 2 indicated that the differences between African American students and White students on the measure of college selectivity of the institution attended were small (Cohen, 1988) which suggested that, based on data from the present study, the college selectivity attendance racial gap is relatively small.

This study sought to examine an understudied consequence of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case: Access of African Americans into selective colleges and universities. The major research finding presented in this study is important and warrants critical discussion. First, because evidence presented in this research suggests that African American students were more likely to attend less academically selective colleges and universities than were White students, there may be cause for concern. Additionally, it should be noted that this study calls into question the generalizability of the data presented in The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions which suggested that African American students, who entered five selective colleges in the fall of 1989, had a greater probability of gaining admission than White candidates with similar SAT scores (Bowen & Bok, 1998). Based on the preliminary findings in the present study, African American students were not more likely than White students to enroll in selective colleges. In fact, across the female and male samples, African Americans attended colleges that were not as academically selective as their White counterparts.

The primary findings in this study are noteworthy in light of research documenting the advantages associated with attending selective institutions (Owings et al., 1998). For instance, at more selective institutions, students are afforded the opportunity of interacting and learning with students who demonstrate appreciable aptitude (i.e., in terms of college entrance test scores) above and beyond that of many students at less selective institutions. In addition, more selective institutions may also be able to attract distinguished faculty members and provide more diverse learning opportunities than less selective institutions. Also, a substantial body of research has explored the impact of attending selective institutions on occupational attainment and earnings. Although this line of research is not totally consistent, the weight of evidence seems to suggest that attending a selective college (as measured by the admissions criteria of the institution) has a moderate effect on earnings of college graduates (James, Alsalam, Conaty, & To, 1989; Loury & Garman, 1995; Mueller, 1988; Smart, 1986; Trusheim & Crouse, 1981). In addition, Braxton and Nordvall (1985) showed that students attending more selective institutions were more likely to take course examinations that tested higher-level thinking skills than did students who attended less selective institutions.

The primary finding of this study may be explained in part due to the test score gap between African American and White students (Jencks & Phillips, 1998). Analyzing data taken from The College Board, Slater (2000) assessed the differences in SAT scores for African American and White students. The findings from his analyses revealed that, on average, White students scored approximately 200 points higher than African American students did on the SAT. Hedges and Nowell (1999) analyzed achievement test score data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study for African American and White students to assess the level and magnitude of the achievement test score gap. The major finding in their study was that the African American-White student test-score gap was large and thus required future research as well as practical solutions to rectify the problem. Roscigno (1999) also utilized data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study as well as from the 1990 Census to measure the extent to which the African American-White test-score gap was a function of family background and social class. Roscigno's findings suggested that differences in socioeconomic status accounted for the lower achievement levels of African American students as well as the variation in test scores by race. Based on the literature discussed in this section, it seems plausible that the test-score gap may contain one possible explanation regarding potential factors that may negatively impact African American students' admission to selective colleges.

Recommendations for Policy, Practice, and Future Research

In light of the present study's findings, institutions should establish guidelines and procedures to study, annually, their admissions practices to determine if race is a mediating factor in college admissions at their college or university. Although it is not completely apparent from this study why race significantly impacted college selectivity, another viable explanation, however, is that African American students are not properly informed or made aware of information regarding application procedures and other admission-related procedures for attending selective institutions. Given this possibility, it suggests a need to review and understand the manner in which African American students are being socialized to enroll in colleges and universities in general and selective colleges and universities in particular. Also, given this possibility, it may be important for parents, high school teachers, and high school counselors to assist African American students in the college admission process to ensure that more African American students apply to selective colleges and universities.

Based on the study's findings selective institutions might also consider initiating or refining precollege programs for African American students to introduce them to the possibility and procedures associated with attending a selective institution. This explanation resonates with findings reported by MacGowan (2002) who interviewed African American students and found that school counselors need to play an increasing role in ensuring that African American students are made aware of: (a) the different levels and types of colleges that are available, (b) the benefits of college attendance, and (c) how to apply to college. In addition, MacGowan noted that parents, personnel at historically Black colleges, and other higher education personnel should assist school counselors as well as provide assistance to help African American students through the college choice process. To further these and related efforts, future research needs to be conducted at postsecondary educational institutions to determine the extent to which race plays a role in admissions decisions at selective colleges and universities. Also, additional research, employing a nationally representative database of students and postsecondary institutions, is needed to further analyze the primary research issues explored in the present study.

Limitations of the Study

This current research contains significant limitations the reader should be aware of when interpreting the results. First, although the initial sample consisted of a broad range of four-year institutions, the generalizability of the findings to all four-year institutions is tenuous. Furthermore, the institutional sample of colleges and universities did not comprise a random sample of four-year postsecondary institutions (Osterlind, 1997). Second, the makeup of the background characteristic variables, institutional characteristic variables, and in-class and out-of-class experience variables were restricted in the College BASE data. Therefore, the data analyses were limited in terms of the researchers' ability to statistically control for important confounding influences. Despite these inherent deficiencies in the College BASE data, the large student and institutional sample sizes made the College BASE data useful for assessing the effects of race on college selectivity.


Adams v. Richardson, 480 E 2d 1159 (D.C.Cir, 1973).

African-American college graduation rates: Blacks do best at the nation's most selective colleges and universities. (1999). The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 25, 122-127.

Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Astin, A. W., & Henson, J. W. (1977). New measures of college selectivity. Research in Higher EDUCATION, 6, 1-9.

Bickel, R. D. (1998). A brief history of the commitment to inclusion as a facet of equal educational opportunity. In D. D. Gehring (Ed.), Responding to the new affirmative action climate (New Directions for Students Services, No. 83, pp. 3-13). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. C. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Braxton, J. M., & Nordvall, R. C. (1985). Selective liberal arts colleges: Higher quality as well as higher prestige? Journal of Higher Education, 56, 538-554.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Brown, M. C. (1999). The quest to define collegiate desegregation: Black colleges, Title VI compliance, and post-Adams litigation. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Byrd-Chichester, J. (2000). The federal courts and claims of racial discrimination in higher education. Journal of Negro Education, 69, 12-26.

Civil Rights Act of 1964 (1964)

Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.

Dorans, N. J. (1999). Correspondences between ACT and SAT I scores (College Board Report No. 99-1). New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Fleming, J. E. (1976). The lengthening shadow of slavery: A historical justification for affirmative action for Blacks in higher education. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.

Flowers, L. A., Osterlind, S. J., Pascarella, E. T., & Pierson, C. T. (2001). How much do students learn in college?: Crosssectional estimates using the College BASE. Journal of Higher Education, 72, 565-583.

Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003)

Hays, W. L. (1994). Statistics (5th ed). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College.

Hedges, L. V., & Nowell, A. (1999). Changes in the Black-White gap in achievement test scores. Sociology of Education, 72, 111-135.

Hill, S. T. (1985). The traditionally Black institutions of higher education 1860 to 1982. (NCES 84-308). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

James, E., Alsalam, N., Conaty, J. C., & To, D. (1989). College quality and future earnings: Where should you send your child to college? The American Economic Review, 79, 247-252.

Jencks, C., & Phillips, M. (Eds.). (1998). The Black-White test score gap. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Lagemann, E. C., & Miller, L. E (Eds.). (1996). Brown v. Board of Education: The challenge for today's schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Loury, L. D., & Garman, D. (1995). College selectivity and earnings. Journal of Labor Economics, 13, 289-308.

Kingston, E W. (1984). The maintenance of educational hierarchy: Recent trends in where Blacks go to college. College and University, 60(1), 37-53.

MacGowan, B. R. (2002). A student-centered model of college choice: Opportunity structures for college-bound Black students. Retrieved on August 7, 2003, from

Maxey, E. J., & Lenning, O. T. (1974). Another look at concordance tables between ACT and SAT. Journal of College Student Personnel, 15, 300-304.

Mueller, R. O. (1988). The impact of college selectivity on income for men and women. Research in Higher Education, 29, 175-191.

Murphy, J. A. (1995). After forty years: The other half of the puzzle. Teachers College Record, 96, 743-750.

Orfield, G., Bachmeier, M. D., James, D. R., & Eitle, T. M. (1997). Deepening segregation in American public schools. Equity and Excellence in Education, 30, 5-24.

Osterlind, S. J. (1997). A national review of scholastic achievement in general education: How are we doing and why should we care? (Vol. 25). Washington, DC: ASHE-ERIC Higher Education.

Osterlind, S. J., et al. (2004). College Basic Academic Subjects Examination. Columbia, Missouri: Assessment Resource Center, University of Missouri-Columbia.

Owings, J., Madigan, T., & Daniel, B. (1998). Who goes to America 's highly ranked "national" universities? (NCES 98-095).

Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Pascarella, E. T., Palmer, B., Moye, M., & Pierson, C. T. (2001). Do diversity experiences influence the development of critical thinking? Journal of College Student Development, 42, 257-271.

Roscigno, V. J. (1999). The Black-White achievement gap, family-school links, and the importance of place. Sociological Inquiry, 69, 159-186.

Rudolph, F. (1990). The American college & university: A history. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Slater, R. (2000). Ranking the states by Black-White SAT scoring gaps. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 26, 105-110.

Smart, J. C. (1986). College effects on occupational status attainment. Research in Higher Education, 24, 73-95.

Trusheim, D., & Crouse, J. (1981). Effects of college prestige on men's occupational status and income. Research in Higher Education, 14, 283-304.

Walster, E., Cleary, T. A., & Clifford, M. M. (1971). The effect of race and sex on college admission. Sociology of Education, 44, 237-244.

Whitt, E. J., Edison, M. I., Pascarella, E. T., Nora, A., & Terenzini, P. T. (1999). Interactions with peers and objective and self-reported cognitive outcomes across 3 years of college. Journal of College Student Development, 40, 61-78.


Lamont A. Flowers is the Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership in the Department of Leadership, Counselor Education, Human and Organizational Development and Director of the Charles H. Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education in the Eugene T. Moore School of Education at Clemson University.
Percent of 1992 High School Graduates Enrolled in Selected
4-Year Institutions, by Type of School Attended and Race

                    National Universities        Regional Colleges

                   All    Tier 1   Tier 2-4   All    Tier 1   Tier 2-4

African American   34.1   7.0      27.1       40.5   5.9      34.5
White              43.9   9.5      34.4       3.9    11.3     22.6

                       National Liberal          Regional Liberal
                         Arts Colleges             Arts Colleges

                   All    Tier 1   Tier 2-4   All    Tier 1   Tier 2-4

African American   2.5    0.7      1.8        16.5   0.3      16.1
White              7.8    3.5      4.3        9.7    3.4      6.3



African American   6.5
White              4.6

Note. From "Who Goes to America's Highly Ranked "National"
Universities?" by J. Owings, T. Madigan, & B. Daniel, 1998, National
Center for Education Statistics (NCES 98-095). Washington, DC:
U.S. Department of Education.

Estimated Effects of Race on College Selectivity Utilizing the
College BASE Sample

Dependent Variable                     B       b     Effect Size

Female: Average ACT Score of         -.17 *   -.02      -.09
  Students at the Institution (a)
Male: Average ACT Score of           -.37 *   -.05      -.18
  Students at the Institution (b)

Dependent Variable                   [R.sup.2]

Female: Average ACT Score of           .11
  Students at the Institution (a)
Male: Average ACT Score of             .13 *
  Students at the Institution (b)

Note. B is the unstandardized regression coefficient. b is the
standardized regression coefficient. Effect sizes were computed by
dividing_ by pooled dependent the standard deviation of the variable.

(a) Mean = 22.80. Standard Deviation = 1.91.

(b) Mean = 23.23. Standard Deviation = 2.11.

* p < .001
COPYRIGHT 2007 The Western Journal of Black Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Flowers, Lamont A.
Publication:The Western Journal of Black Studies
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Previous Article:In the shadow of Barack Obama: two African American senatorial candidates in Georgia's 2004 elections: Republican Herman Cain and Democrat Denise...
Next Article:Is there a racial/ethnic hierarchy in health status and care.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters