Minority students—individuals who are of a race or ethnicity other than white (Caucasian)—are a growing population on college campuses. Since 2000, the overall percentage of minority students enrolled in college by the October after their high school graduations has increased. While Asian students and Hispanic students enrolled in higher numbers in 2016 than 2003 and 2000 respectively, for black students, the immediate college enrollment rate hasn’t changed. Furthermore, the total college enrollment rate for minority students (with the exception of Hispanic and mixed race students) decreased between 2010 and 2014. Minority students, with the exception of Asian students, also graduate at a lower rate than their white peers. Factors including student preparation, the type of college attended, and the ability to afford tuition likely affect these numbers. With the proper resources minority students can and do succeed in college.
Who are minority students?
The term “minority” can have different connotations depending on whom you ask. For example, the Cambridge Dictionary defines “ethnic minority” as “a group of people of a particular race or nationality living in a country or area where most people are from a different race or nationality.” In American culture, a “minority” typically refers to a racial group that makes up a smaller percentage of the population than white people. While these two definitions are similar, your personal experiences may shape your understanding of the word “minority.” For the purpose of this article, a minority will be defined as a racial or ethnic group that makes up less than half of the United States’ population.
As of July 2017, over 60% of the U.S. population identified as white, not Hispanic, making that group the racial majority. In contrast, minorities include black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, and Hispanic or Latino. Some individuals may identify as a mix of two or more races.
Do minority students attend college at the same rate as their white peers?
The answer is: It depends. In 2016, 71% of white high school graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college by the October after graduation. In comparison, Asian high school graduates immediately enrolled in college at a higher rate (87% in 2016). However, black graduates enrolled at a lower rate than their white and Asian peers in 2016, only 56%. Although Hispanic graduates enrolled at a much lower rate than white graduates in 2000 (49% compared to 65%), by 2016 the percentage of Hispanic graduates immediately enrolling in college rose to 71%, a level equal to that of their white peers.
What challenges might minority students face in attending college?
The challenges that minority students face depends in part on their race or ethnicity. For example:
- Hispanic students and white students with similar levels of K–12 preparedness do not attend college in similar ways. High-achieving Hispanic students are more likely to attend open-access colleges (like community colleges, which accept all applicants) and less likely to attend one of the 500 most selective colleges (which have a higher graduation rate) than their white counterparts. Of the Hispanic students who attend open-access colleges, only 36% graduate; nearly 70% of Hispanic students who attend selective colleges graduate. Choosing an elite school, then, may lead to better chances of completion for Hispanic students. However, elite schools are more expensive and affordability may be a problem.
- Black students struggle in different ways. Even before kindergarten, black students score lower than their white peers on standardized tests measuring vocabulary, reading, and math skills. This gap has been measured since 1970, and despite narrowing over time, it still exists. As recently as 2015, a study by The Brookings Institution found that white students who took the SAT scored an average of 534 on the math section, while black students scored an average of 428. (Latino students scored slightly higher than black students with an average of 457, and Asian students surpassed white students with an average of 598.) Smaller class sizes and increased expectations of students by teachers may help alleviate this gap.
All minority students, though, may have less access to advanced courses in high school, be taught by less experienced teachers, and be subject to tougher discipline than their white peers. Secondary schools with a high percentage of minorities are less likely to offer advanced classes, and when they do, minorities are less likely to enroll. An article published in The Atlantic in 2014 states that “The students who actually take college-prep courses and pass them are disproportionately affluent, white, or Asian. Black and Latino students make up 37 percent of high school students but only 27 percent of students taking an AP class and 18 percent of students passing AP exams, according to the Education Department.” The article also states that just 25% of the schools serving the highest percentages of minority students offer Algebra II. These factors make it difficult for minority students to attend college.
For the minority students who do manage to overcome the previous obstacles to attend college, new obstacles arise. An article published in USA Today examines a report released by Young Invincibles in 2017 identifying several issues facing minority students:
- Minority students disproportionately attend for-profit and two-year schools. Students attending for-profit schools take out more student loans than their peers at nonprofit colleges, and have higher rates of student loan default. Similarly, students attending two-year colleges typically end up with lower incomes and also are more likely to default on student loans than students who attend four-year colleges.
- Minority families tend to spend a greater percentage of their income on college tuition than more affluent families, placing a large burden on the household and making it difficult to make ends meet. Not only do students work to help pay their tuition bills (which can contribute to dropping out), they may spread out their classes and proceed through college slowly in an effort to lower their payments each semester.
- These low-income students may be eligible for application fee waivers, federal financial aid, institutional grants, and participation in programs tailored to helping them attend college.
- Minority students (with the exception of Asian students) graduate college at a lower rate than their white peers.
Additionally, minority students may feel excluded due to a lack of racially diverse faculty on campus, the prevalence of racism, and pushback from other students against affirmative action policies.
These factors all contribute to making it harder for minority students, particularly black, Hispanic, and Native American students, to attend college.
Are minority students asked to disclose their race or ethnicity on college applications?
A school will know your race or ethnicity from your application if you tell them. Most applications ask a student to identify their race or ethnicity because the federal government requires that this information be tracked. However, these questions are optional and you are not required to answer. If you choose to disclose your race, know that colleges can take it into consideration when making admissions decisions, but it will not be the primary characteristic on which the decision is based. For more information, see the questions about affirmative action below.
If you are applying for federal financial aid, know that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) does not ask for race or ethnicity information. Private scholarship applications, however, may require an answer.
Are there colleges that look more favorably upon minorities?
Due to the push for greater diversity on campus, minority students are sought after by most colleges. However, if you are looking for a school with a large minority population, you may want to consider a historically black college or university, a tribal college, or a school from this list of colleges with a high minority population.
Individual colleges may also publish information about their student bodies on their website. If you have a list of colleges you’re interested in and want to learn more about the racial makeup of your prospective peers, search for that information online. The College Board’s search engine also has information about the diversity of the student body on various college campuses. Search for colleges here, then click on “Campus Life” to learn more about the student body.
What is affirmative action?
Affirmative action policies are those that are intended to level the playing field and give historically disenfranchised groups (women, racial or ethnic minorities) equal opportunities in employment and education.
Initially signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, Executive Order 10925 stated, “The [government] contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that applicants are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” It was expanded in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11246, which read, “The [government] contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Combined with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that school segregation was unlawful and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, college and universities began to make similar policies when it came to determining which students to accept.
As affirmative action in education stands now, it is legal for admissions counselors to take race or ethnicity into account when making admissions decisions. If an admissions decision comes down to a white student and a minority student with similar qualifications, the minority student can be given extra consideration. However, the fact that a student is a minority cannot be the single deciding factor in an admissions decision. Furthermore, schools cannot legally set quotas for the number of minority students they accept.
Do all colleges practice affirmative action?
Generally, yes. Most colleges and universities (both private and public) encourage campus diversity by considering race as one of many factors when making admissions decisions, and try to make the racial diversity on campus more closely match that found in society. Colleges may also use affirmative action to encourage minority students specifically to apply in the first place.
In recent years, some individuals have challenged schools’ affirmative action policies, but in general the policies have been upheld by judicial courts. Though affirmative action is legal federally, several states have imposed laws to make such policies illegal statewide. Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, and Oklahoma have passed laws which limit or ban the use of affirmative action in public education and/or state colleges and universities.
Most recently, the Trump administration rescinded policies that called for colleges and universities to apply affirmative action when making admissions decisions in an attempt to create a more diverse student body. While there have been no legal changes to affirmative action, colleges may decide to ramp down their policies in the future.
Are scholarships available to help minority students attend college?
Absolutely! Check out the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Ron Brown Scholar Program, and the Jackie Robinson Foundation. A quick internet search for “scholarships for African American students” or “Asian student scholarships” should bring up plenty more results.
Not all scholarship opportunities are offered to students of particular races or ethnicities. You should also search for scholarships based on your interests (both at and outside of school) and your achievements. Participating in organizations like Boy Scouts or Beta Club may open up other scholarship opportunities. Remember, you can apply for scholarships before and during college, so look and apply for new opportunities every year to get the most financial aid.
Don’t forget to apply for federal financial aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every October.
What resources are available to help minority students succeed in college?
Virtually all colleges offer academic and wellness support to all students. You may find that your school offers free tutoring, a math or writing center, counseling services, a campus health clinic, or a career center. These, and more, are staples at most institutions. You will also find a plethora of extracurricular activities, ranging from intramural sports teams to mock trial and student government.
As a minority student, though, you may face specific challenges fitting in, particularly if there are few minorities on your college campus. Finding support designed to alleviate those challenges may make you a more comfortable and productive student. Fortunately, there are many groups and organizations built around helping minority students succeed and build camaraderie with similar students.
Most prolific of these campus organizations are fraternities and sororities. The National Pan-Hellenic Council, for example, is composed of nine African American fraternities and sororities, and gives students the chance to meet people similar to them through volunteer work, networking events, and leadership training. Alpha Pi Omega is a historically American Indian sorority. The National APIDA Panhellenic Association is a group of 18 fraternities and sororities that cater to the Asian community. The National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations is composed of 16 Latino fraternities and sororities and hosts meetups and workshops for interested members.
You don’t have to be interested in Greek life to find a group of likeminded minority students, though. Macalester College is home to Adelante!, a group “dedicated to increasing awareness and appreciation of U.S. Latina/o, Chicana/o, and Latin American culture, politics, and society at Macalester.” Pomona College boasts of the Students of Color Alliance Symposium. A quick search for clubs and organizations on your (prospective) college’s website is sure to bring up several options that are relevant to your needs.
What should I do if I feel I am being discriminated against?
Racial discrimination in education is prohibited under federal law by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you feel that you are being subjected to racial discrimination and want to make a complaint, you can choose to make a complaint to your school, to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, or both. If you choose not to make a complaint, you may instead consider seeking the friendship of your peers, talking to a trusted advisor or professor, or talking to a counselor or other mental health specialist.
If you wish to file a complaint with your school, reach out to a school administrator, like a dean or the head of the school’s diversity office (if there is one). He or she will be able to help you navigate the school’s grievance policy, or direct you to someone who can.
If you wish to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, you must do so within 180 days of the discriminatory event or within 60 days of the completion of your school’s investigation. You will be required to submit a detailed report about the event, including your name and contact information, where the event occurred, and what happened during the event. You can file your complaint here.
Page last updated: 07/2018