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Achieving Equity As Generation Y Goes to College: New Data
Debra Humphreys, Editor, Diversity Digest, and Director of Programs, Office of Diversity, Equity, and Global Initiatives, AAC&U


The number of undergraduates qualified to attend colleges and universities in the United States will grow by 19 percent--2.6 million students--between 1995 and 2015, with minority students making up 80 percent of the increase, according to a recently released report by the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

The study, Crossing the Great Divide: Can We Achieve Equity When Generation Y Goes to College?, suggests that the combined undergraduate populations at the nation's public, private, and community colleges will grow from 13.4 million students in 1995 to about 16 million students in 2015. In addition to the children of baby-boom parents, this new cohort of students will include many older students who are opting to go to college because it has become such an important prerequisite for good jobs in today's knowledge-based economy. The report projects that older students will account for about 31 percent--about 800,000--of the projected 2.6 million rise in undergraduate enrollment. Higher immigration rates are also contributing to the rise in campus populations.

Who is Coming to College in the Coming Decades?

College campuses will clearly be much more racially and ethnically diverse in the coming decades. This report reminds us, however, that the highest levels of racial/ethnic diversity at colleges and universities will be clustered in particular regions of the country. More than half of the overall increase in undergraduates will occur in just five states--California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Arizona. Minority undergraduates will outnumber White students on campus in 2015 in the District of Columbia and in Hawaii, California, and New Mexico. Texas will be about evenly split between minority and White undergraduates in 2015, with minorities as a group becoming a majority soon after. Minority enrollment will exceed 40 percent of undergraduates in 2015 in six other states--New York, Maryland, Florida, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

According to the report authors, Anthony P. Carnevale, Vice President for Public Leadership, and Richard A. Fry, Senior Economist, both at ETS, minority student enrollment will rise both in absolute number of students--up about 2 million--and in percentage terms, growing from 29.4 percent of overall undergraduate enrollment in 1995 to 37.2 percent in 2015. The report defines "minority" as African American, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander (see chart on next page).

Hispanic students will register the largest absolute gains. There will be an additional 1.0 million undergraduate Hispanic students. This group will grow from 10.6 percent of the nation's campus population in 1995 to 15.4 percent in 2015. ETS projects that Hispanic undergraduates will become the nation's second largest student group by race/ethnicity, surpassing the enrollment of African American undergraduates, in 2006. Four states--California, Texas, Florida, and New York--will account for two-thirds of the increase in Hispanic students.

In percentage terms, Asian-Pacific Islanders on campus are the fastest growing minority. The report suggests that the Asian/Pacific Islander undergraduate population will swell by 600,000 students between 1995 and 2015, an 86 percent increase. This group will grow from 5.4 percent to 8.4 percent of all U.S. college students.

The increase projected by ETS for African American undergraduates will be about 400,000 students, concentrated in Texas, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, and North Carolina. The percentage of African American undergraduates will remain steady, however, at about 13 percent.

The number of White college students will also be rising in the coming decades, but they will make up a declining portion of the undergraduate population. The share of White students on campuses nationwide will decline to 62.8 percent in 2015, a drop of 7.8 percent over 1995 levels. The absolute numbers of White undergraduates will fall in ten states, led by New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Does This Mean We're Approaching Equity?

As research in this and other issues of Diversity Digest has shown, simply assembling a more diverse population of students doesn't mean a campus has achieved a meaningfully inclusive learning environment. Colleges and universities, for instance, still have a long way to go before they will achieve a diversity of their faculty and administrative ranks comparable to the diversity of their student bodies. In addition, creating an effective learning environment for all students on a diverse campus is still a significant challenge. Reports of differential experiences of acceptance and instances of overt and covert acts of discrimination on college campuses still abound.

This report also reminds us that despite steady gains in the absolute number of minority students going to college, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-old African American and Hispanic undergraduates will still lag behind both groups' share of the general 18- to 24-year-old population in 2015. The gap, in fact, is increasing. In 2015, this report suggests that African Americans will make up 14.5 percent of all 18- to 24-year olds, but only 11.9 percent of 18- to 24-year old undergraduates--a gap of 2.6 percentage points, compared to a 2.5 percentage point gap in 1995.

Similarly, Hispanics will be 18.9 percent of all youth in the traditional college age bracket in 2015, but account for only 13.1 percent of 18- to 24-year old undergraduates--a gap of 5.8 percentage points in 2015, compared to 5.1 percentage points in 1995. Only Asian/Pacific Islander undergraduates as a group will equal their share of the traditional college-age population in 2015. It is very important to remember, however, that academic achievement and college attendance varies widely across different groups of Asian/Pacific Islanders.

Are We Ready? Are They Ready?

While the ETS report cautions that comparing the academic readiness of today's youth with previous generations is difficult because of an absence of comparable measures, the report suggests that students today are at least as well prepared academically as their parents. The reports' authors remind us, however, that their limited analysis does not assert that schools are better or worse than before, or that they are up to the level they need to be. Clearly, expectations for college level learning have also changed with changing times. As Carol Geary Schneider, AAC&U president, responding to the release of the report, put it, "we need to take a hard look at what students now need from a college education and whether the current high school curriculum is preparing students to achieve the kinds of learning that are essential in an increasingly diverse and globally interconnected democracy." (See page 27 for information about AAC&U's new initiative, "Greater Expectations.")

Figure 2 chart

The Costs and Benefits of Closing the Gap?

Clearly it will cost a great deal of money to educate this larger cohort of students. The report warns that financing the increased demand with tuition hikes will be untenable as a solution given the demographics of who the new students are. As Sonia Hernandez, Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, California Department of Education, put it, "tuition hikes are a risky and inadequate response. College is already a stretch for these kids, but they go because a college education is so important for their future earning power. Tuition hikes could turn them away and, in the long run, jeopardize the nation's economic growth."

The report suggests that the nation has much to gain from educating these students well. It suggests that "Raising the academic achievement of minority students would go a long way toward both reducing poverty and addressing labor shortages at the high end of the job market. Moreover, the upsurge in national wealth that would result from this infusion of human capital would be startling." The report projects that boosting African American and Hispanic educational attainment to the same level as Whites would add 231 billion dollars annually to the U.S. economy. "Assuming an average federal, state, and local tax rate of 35 percent, the new wealth created by this new human capital would result in more than 80 billion dollars in new public revenues."

Crossing the Great Divide also suggests other potential benefits of the growing diversity on college campuses. Authors of the report conclude that more diversity among undergraduates will enhance the future productivity of the U.S. workforce by fostering greater flexibility, innovation, and creativity, and by increasing America's comfort level with, and competitiveness in, the global marketplace. The report also confirms much of the other research reported in this issue of Diversity Digest. The report suggests that "more diversity can enhance the learning environment at the nation's colleges and universities. More diverse viewpoints will stimulate a broader range of ideas and improve intellectual pursuits. All college students benefit from having people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints in their college faculties, dorms, and student bodies."

As Schneider put it, "Diversity on campus is not just good for minority students. It is good for all students because we know, and this report confirms, that students on diverse campuses learn problem solving, communication, and other skills so critical to success in the new economy."


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Crossing the Great Divide