Financial considerations aside, access to a college education depends on an intricate combination of factors including grades, college entrance test scores, class rank, course of study, quality of the high school attended, and extracurricular activities. Race can also be a factor -- though not an overriding factor -- in deciding who is in and who is out, according to a landmark 2003 Supreme Court decision involving the University of Michigan law school.
This year, Americans were asked: "If two equally qualified students, one black and one white, applied to a major U.S. college or university, who would have the better chance of being accepted?" Nearly half of Americans (47%) say each has the same chance; 29% say the white student has a better chance and 20% say the black student*.
As on many issues involving race, whites and blacks have different opinions regarding which race currently fares better in the college admissions process. Half of non-Hispanic whites (50%) say each student has an equal chance of being accepted; 24% say the black student would have the edge, while 21% think the white student would have the advantage. In contrast, a solid majority of blacks (64%) say the white student would have a better chance of being accepted, while only 4% say the black student would have the better chance. Twenty-nine percent of blacks say chances are equal for both.
Whites' perceptions have changed since the last time Gallup asked this question, just prior to the 2003 Supreme Court decision. Overall, Americans are now more likely to say that blacks and whites have the same chance of being accepted into college, compared with sentiment in 2003. In 2003, 34% of whites said the black student had the better chance, compared with 24% who say that today. Although the Supreme Court upheld the concept of affirmative action for minority students in principle, it struck down the practice of admissions offices assigning additional points to students based solely on race -- a fine distinction that may have created a more positive attitude toward affirmative action on the part of whites.
Many black Americans are starkly aware of the educational disparity between the poor, urban schools that many black children attend and schools in more affluent, largely white suburbs. This disparity may be one reason for the difference of opinion between blacks and whites on this question. With access to often superior secondary education, white students may benefit from more rigorous academic tracks that prepare them more fully for college-level work. The College Board reports that in 2005, combined average SAT verbal and math scores were 1068 for whites and 864 for blacks.
Affirmative Action Plays a Role
Why do one in four whites say the equally qualified black student would have a better chance of getting into college? That figure may reflect knowledge of past and present affirmative action programs used on college campuses. Designed in the 1960s to remedy the effects of discrimination by helping minorities gain entrance into college, black Americans clearly support affirmative action programs, while whites are more divided (see "Race, Ideology, and Support for Affirmative Action" in Related Items).
Additionally, respondents were asked in the same survey whether they think affirmative action programs "ensure that well-qualified minorities get access to the schools and jobs that they deserve, or these programs give preferential treatment to minorities in school admissions and jobs -- even when those minorities are less qualified than other applicants." The majority of whites (54%) tend to view affirmative action programs as giving preferential treatment to minorities in work and education, while the majority of blacks (65%) generally think that they mainly ensure access for minorities that they otherwise might not get.
Majority of Young Adults Discern a Fair Process
Younger Americans, aged 18 to 29, who are nearest to the traditional college age, are particularly likely to view the system as evenhanded. Young adults are significantly more likely than older adults to say equally qualified students of both races have an equal chance of getting into college -- 59% of 18- to 29-year-olds compared with 44% of adults aged 30 and older. As encouraging as this may be, race is still, by far, the overriding factor in gauging attitudes about college access. A majority of both younger and older blacks say the white student has a better chance to get in.
College and university access increased for all Americans during the latter part of the 20th century. The number of white Americans earning a bachelor's degree or higher has tripled, from 8% in 1960 to 26% in 2000. During the same time period, blacks have nearly quintupled their college graduation rate -- in 1960, just 3% of blacks earned a college degree, compared with more than 14% today.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 2,264 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 6-25, 2005, including oversamples of blacks and Hispanics that are weighted to reflect their proportions in the general population. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.
Results for the sample of 807 non-Hispanic whites, aged 18 and older, are based on telephone interviews conducted June 6-25, 2005. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points.
Results for the sample of 802 blacks, aged 18 and older, are based on telephone interviews conducted June 6-25, 2005. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.