After months of debate, the Supreme Court recently ruled that race-based admissions were unconstitutional, effectively ending affirmative action. Set against the backdrop of Harvard, one of the world’s most prestigious universities and the country’s oldest private college, the years-long saga of the case highlighted the American education system’s troubling lack of diversity, often exacerbated by long-standing legacy admissions.
Harvard itself became a sort of case study—or pariah, depending on who you ask—for the inequalities of American education. In recent weeks, Harvard has been hit with a lawsuit and a state-wide bill in Massachusetts, both aimed at curbing the school’s legacy admissions.
Even President Joe Biden chided the practice, saying legacy admissions “expanded privilege instead of opportunity.”
The lawsuit, court ruling, and general condemnation all raise bigger questions about the direction of American education. Can it live up to its stated goals as a critical stepping stone toward achieving the American Dream? Or does it now perpetuate inequality by trapping middle- and lower-class students into never-ending cycles of student debt that wealthy students can either pay off with ease or never accrue to begin with? Has higher education gone from being the Great Equalizer meant to level the playing field to a system that tilts it further toward those who need it least?
A comprehensive report by Goldman Sachs found one type of college more than any other lives up to the promise of social mobility: historically Black colleges and universities.
HBCUs deliver on American Dream
The report, released last month, found that HBCUs help students from low-income families move into higher incomes at about twice the rate of other colleges and universities. The upward class mobility at HBCUs is even more notable considering HBCUs are less than 3% of colleges in the U.S. but account for 13% of bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students, and 20% of Black STEM graduates.
HBCUs also do a better job than other universities of recruiting, admitting, and ultimately educating first-generation college students—who comprise a staggering 45% of the student body at four-year HBCUs, according to the report.
HBCUs can be such powerful tools of class mobility that even proximity to one increases the likelihood of eventually graduating from college, according to the report.
If HBCUs afford low-income students the best chance to climb the social ladder because they successfully recruit first-generation college students, who are more likely to come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, it’s also because elite predominantly white institutions (PWIs) do a particularly poor job of recruiting those students at all.
“Ivy Plus” schools (which include the eight Ivy League schools and MIT, Stanford, Duke, and the University of Chicago) are particularly limited in who they accept, with only 3.8% of students coming from the bottom 20% of household income and a staggering 14.5% who are members of the 1%, the report says. Further highlighting the class imbalance of the “Ivy Plus” set is the fact that just 5% of students from low-income that make it to the 1% attended those schools.
In an institutional embodiment of the idea of working twice as hard to get half as much, HBCUs have managed to better deliver on the American Dream despite having fewer resources compared to non-HBCUs. According to the Goldman Sachs report, public HBCUs had 54% less in assets per student than public non-HBCUs in 2021, while private HBCUs had 79% less compared to private non-HBCUs.
Perhaps the report’s most promising data point, however, is that schools that provide clear pathways to the middle and upper class are proven to be scalable. So successful methods that worked in a small sample size—HBCUs—can be applied to much broader settings: the entire U.S. education system.