Happening Today: Education Week Leadership Symposium. Learn more and register.

High-School Race Makeup Seen Linked to College Success

September 05, 1990 4 min read

By Ann Bradley

Minority students in large metropolitan areas who graduate from high schools with predominantly white enrollments have a greater chance of finishing college than those who attend schools where nonwhite students are in the majority, a study to be published this week concludes.

This finding held true even when students’ family incomes and academic ability were taken into account, the study found. In fact, the racial composition of the students’ high schools was found to be the strongest predictor of college completion of all the school characteristics examined.

The problem for minority students, the study concludes, is not getting into college. Rather, it is that “few manage to survive and obtain the [bachelor’s] degree.”

White students and members of minority groups were found to be equally likely to apply to college and to enroll in college courses. But students, regardless of race, who had graduated from schools with predominantly minority enrollments were twice as likely not to finish their studies as students who graduated from predominantly white schools.

The study presents the first national data on the college-going experiences of city and suburban students in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, according to its author, Eric M. Camburn, assistant survey director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

The findings are being published this week in a special issue of the American Journal of Education devoted to research on minority students’ access to higher education.

The cities included in the study, which used data from the U.S. Education Department’s 1980 “High School and Beyond” survey, were Chicago, Detroit, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

While previous national studies have shown that the effect of race on white and minority students’ chances of attaining college degrees is reduced when their socioeconomic status is taken into account, Mr. Camburn said in an interview that his research indicates that is not the case in large metropolitan areas.

“I feel it’s a strong indication that the forces operating in these large metropolitan areas are significantly different,” he said.

Of the 1,009 students and 181 high schools analyzed, 87 percent of the white students attended schools with white enrollments of two-thirds or more, while 48 percent of the minority students attended schools that were at least two-thirds minority.

Poor Preparation Cited

In addition to data about race and socioeconomic status, the study examined students’ plans for attending college, grades, and scores on standardized tests. It also examined the characteristics of the schools they attended, including location, racial composition of the student body, and whether the school was public or private.

The study does not attempt to explain why students who graduated from schools with a majority of white students were more likely to complete college than those who did not. But differences in students’ standardized-test scores indicated that inadequate preparation in high school might have been a factor, Mr. Camburn writes.

Somewhat surprisingly, the author writes, attending a private or suburban school did not increase a student’s chances of graduating college, when family income, race, and high-school racial composition were taken into account.

The three steps to completing college--application, entry, and graduation--were also examined to determine at what point the disparities between college completion became evident.

Students who attended schools with high percentages of minority enrollment were found to be more likely to apply to college than those who did not.

But once admitted to college, 82 percent of the students from high schools with two-thirds or more minority enrollment left without completing the requirements for a degree. In contrast, 41 percent of the students from predominantly white schools did not complete their studies.

“Substantial numbers of these students are applying, they get in, and they even attend some classes,” Mr. Camburn said, “but the attrition for students from higher-percentage-minority schools is just unbelievable in comparison to students from schools with higher percentages of whites.”

The special journal issue also in an article by Faith Paul, a reer at the University of Chicago, pointing out that black and Hispanic enrollment in college in five large metropolitan areas is not keeping pace with increases by minority students in high-school graduation.

Ms. Paul was co-editor of the issue with Gary Orfield, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. She studied Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

In Los Angeles, for example, 18 percent of the high-school graduates in 1980 were Hispanic, compared with 12 percent of the students enrolled in local colleges and universities. By 1986, 24 percent of the high-school graduates were Hispanic, while 14 percent of students enrolled in higher education were Hispanic.

In Atlanta, 31 percent of the high-school graduates in 1980 were black, compared with 24 percent of the students enrolled at local colleges. By 1986, 33 percent of the high-school graduates were black, while only 20 percent of the students in local colleges were black.

Copies of the American Journal of Education are available for $5.50 each, or $9.50 if purchased by institutions, from the University of Chicago Press, Journals Division, P.O. Box 37005, Chicago, Ill. 60637.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as High-School Race Makeup Seen Linked to College Success