Closed Doors: Black and Latino Students Are Excluded from Top Public Universities

Graduating students listen to a commencement speech on June 3, 2016, in New York.

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In the fall of 2014, 297,000 African American and Latino students enrolled in America’s top public research universities. While access to such elite educations will likely put these individuals on a path for lifelong success, a new analysis of federal data from the Center for American Progress shows that if these students were proportionately represented, another 193,000 students of color would have received the same opportunity. Instead, in a pattern that repeats itself in nearly every state, the doors to America’s top public colleges remain firmly closed to the vast majority of black and Latino undergraduate students. As a result, in nearly every state, these students are significantly overrepresented at less-selective public four-year colleges, as well as at community colleges, compared with their white and Asian peers.

Disparities in college enrollment matter, as the type of school a student attends plays a substantial role in their likelihood of successful completion. The most elite public colleges conduct high levels of academic research, have selective admissions, and produce strong outcomes. At these colleges, the average graduation rate is nearly double those at less-selective public colleges. Meanwhile, students who attend public four-year colleges are more likely to graduate than those who attend community colleges.

Differences in institutional completion rates translate into massive national gaps in college attainment. Just 21 percent of black young adults and 16 percent of Latino young adults have bachelor’s degrees, far below the 43 percent level of white young adults and the 63 percent level of Asian young adults. In other words, when blacks and Latinos are excluded from top colleges, the U.S. higher education system cannot serve as an engine for social mobility.

While student enrollment is a complex issue driven by state, institutional, and individual decisions, making sure students attend colleges that set them up for success is one way to address these gaps. This means providing prospective students with college counseling in high school or through a variety of national, state, and community-based college access organizations to direct them to schools that match their academic potential. It also means reducing financial barriers that may cause students to not enroll. This includes making sure that students know about and apply for financial aid and—most importantly—that public investments provide a greater guarantee of affordability. Once students are enrolled, it then means focusing on their completion through academic and student support programs.

The following analysis looks at enrollment in three types of public colleges in the fall of 2014: top research universities, other four-year colleges, and community colleges. Specifically, it looks at the enrollment distribution of students by race to get a sense of what types of public colleges certain students are likely to attend. In other words, for example, this issue brief looks at what types of colleges Latino students enroll in—not what share of students within a given college are Latino. This analysis also details the types of colleges students attend when they are not enrolled at a top research university and describes the enrollment patterns in states where black and Latino students are least likely to attend top public research universities.

National undergraduate enrollment by race at public colleges

The United States is home to a vast public higher education system that educates three-quarters of American college students. Within this system are three broad types of colleges, as stated above. Top research universities represent the most prestigious options. The majority of these schools have very selective admissions standards, and they only enrolled 18 percent of undergraduate students in the fall of 2014. (see Table 1) Other four-year colleges educated 38 percent of public college students in the fall of 2014 and include a range of selective and less-selective colleges. Some of these conduct academic research, while others focus on student instruction. Community colleges are a more affordable, open-access option for many students and enrolled 45 percent of undergraduate public college students in 2014. They also offer career-oriented certificates or associate degrees that lead to the workforce or future bachelor’s degree study.


However, the share of students attending top research universities varies considerably by race. Of the 10 million full-time undergraduate students that enrolled in public colleges in the fall of 2014, 2.8 million were black or Latino. Yet these students are less likely to attend America’s most elite public universities than other students. As shown in Table 1, just 9 percent of black students and 8 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students attended these institutions—the lowest share of students from any background. Latino students followed with 12 percent enrollment.

In contrast, some demographic groups are well represented at top research universities. In 2014, 31 percent of Asian students attended these schools, the highest share of any race or ethnicity. For illustration, there were almost identical numbers of Latino and Asian students enrolled in the nation’s top public colleges that fall—about 190,000—even though 1 million more Latino students attended public colleges as a whole. Among 5 million white students, 19 percent enrolled at top research universities.

The proportional underenrollment of black and Latino students at top public colleges translates into hundreds of thousands of students who do not end up at one of these schools. If 18 percent of black and Latino students enrolled at top research universities—the same share as students of all races and ethnicities—an estimated 193,134 more black and Latino students would have attended this type of institution in the fall of 2014. (see Table 2)


Black and Latino students who do not enroll in top public colleges show different matriculation patterns than white students. More than half of Latino students attending public colleges—56 percent—attended open enrollment community colleges in 2014, and about one-third attended other four-year institutions. (see Table 1) Among black students, 51 percent of students enrolled in public colleges attended community colleges, while 40 percent attended other four-year colleges. In contrast, just 41 percent of white students enrolled in public colleges attended community colleges, while 40 percent attended other four-year colleges.

In addition to the national picture, these stark differences in higher education enrollment play out when examined state by state.

State enrollment by race and ethnicity at public colleges

Not all states have the same types of public institutions of higher education. In 2014, 40 states had universities that conducted research at the highest level. Some states have robust higher education systems, which include a variety of community college and four-year options. At the same time, some smaller and more rural states do not have large community college systems, thereby directing more students to the four-year level.

Even recognizing the variety of institutional options, in 39 of the 40 states with at least one elite public research university in 2014, black students faced gaps at these schools. Latino students, meanwhile, faced gaps underrepresented at these institutions in 26 states. On the other hand, Asian students were more likely than all other student racial or ethnic demographics to attend top public research institutions in 39 states.

The inverse is true at community colleges. Black students were overrepresented at community colleges in 44 states, while Latino students were overrepresented in 39 states; white students were overrepresented in 7 states and Asian students in just 5 states. This is not to say that going to a community college is inherently problematic. Many are quite good and provide affordable job training. By 2020, an estimated 30 percent of jobs in the economy will require an associate degree or some college education. Additionally, individuals with associate degrees earn more than people with just a high school diploma, but these individuals also earn less on average than those with bachelor’s degrees.

States where black students are least likely to enroll in top colleges

Some states particularly stand out because a small share of black students attend elite public colleges relative to all students in the public college system in the state. In these states, just 4 percent to 6 percent of black students enroll at top public colleges, and there are notable gaps between these underrepresented students and all students enrolled in top public colleges. The states with the smallest shares of black students who attended top research universities in the public college system are also states with large black communities, three of which are in the South. (see Table 3)


Some states may end up with small shares of black students in their elite public colleges due to other educational options. In North Carolina, for instance, just 4 percent of black college students enrolled in one of the state’s two top research universities, the lowest level of any state. However, this may reflect that North Carolina has other educational opportunities that are not available in other states. While North Carolina has a low share of black students at top research colleges, 27 percent of black undergraduate students in the North Carolina public college system enrolled in one of the state’s five public historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, in 2014. These colleges were established before 1964 with the principal mission of educating black people and are uniquely situated to serve black students.

In Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas, the share of black students attending top research universities was significantly lower than the share of all students attending these institutions. Each of these states is home to at least one public HBCU, but the public HBCUs in these states enroll a smaller share of black students than they do in North Carolina. Still, there are differences in what types of institutions black students attend instead of top research universities. In Arkansas and Tennessee, the majority of black students are enrolled in four-year colleges. In Texas, more black students attend community colleges than other four-year colleges.

States where Latino students are least likely to enroll in top public colleges

Similar to black students, there are states where the share of Latino students enrolled in top colleges lags behind. Notably, it includes populous states, including Texas and California, which have large Latino communities.

Only 5 percent of Latinos in the New York public college system were enrolled in top public colleges in 2014, while the share of all students enrolled was 9 percent. This low share may be a result of geography. Much of the state’s Latino population lives in or near New York City, where there is just one top public research university—the City University of New York’s Graduate School and University Center. While 24 percent of its undergraduate students in the fall of 2014 were Latino, the university itself is significantly smaller than other top research universities in New York and primarily enrolls graduate students. Similarly, in New Jersey, Rutgers University–New Brunswick—the state’s top research university—is not located near Latino population centers.

In Massachusetts, just 6 percent of Latino students in public colleges were enrolled in top public universities. (see Table 4) Similar to black students, the majority of Latino students in Massachusetts—60 percent—attend community colleges.


Meanwhile, in California, 8 percent of Latino students in public colleges attended top research universities, compared with nearly 14 percent of students overall. Instead, two-thirds of Latino students attended community colleges. This high level is partly due to the structure of the California public college system, where 59 percent of all students enrolled in community colleges.

In Texas, 9 percent of Latino students attended top public universities, compared with 13 percent of all students enrolled. Because the Texas public college system is large, this gap translates to a difference of more than 13,000 students.

While some of these states tend to do poorly in terms of Latino student enrollment at top colleges, they do fare quite well in terms of Latino student college enrollment overall. In California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, Latino students are more likely to be enrolled in college than Latino students nationally.

Complex factors drive student enrollment patterns

It is not clear exactly why some states may do a better job enrolling black and Latino students than other states. This may be because of different factors that affect student enrollment. Students make educational choices based on academics and affordability but also as a result of individual and family goals and geography. Institutions also make admissions decisions that dictate which students can attend a certain school.

A school’s finances can also affect college admission. State disinvestment in public colleges may create financial pressures to recruit out-of-state students who can pay a higher tuition price tag. This pattern could take spots away from lower-income students of color. For example, a recent report by the California state auditor found that the University of California system had increased the number of out-of-state students, who typically pay higher tuition levels, and that this practice hampered efforts to increase diversity because a relatively small share of out-of-state students were underrepresented minority students. The report recommended the system place more emphasis on recruiting California residents, particularly minority and underrepresented students.

Still, policymakers, institutional leaders, and communities need to work together to make sure more underrepresented minority students—particularly black and Latino students—attend top public colleges with strong academic outcomes. Students need effective college counseling before they enroll so that they can make informed choices that match their academic preparation and personal goals. They need financial support to make college affordable and financial counseling to help them take advantage of available aid. Finally, once on campus, they need access to support services that can help them progress if they fall behind.


When students of color enroll in college, they are making an investment in themselves and their future. They know education beyond high school sets them up for a more secure life because college graduates are more likely to earn higher wages and face lower unemployment levels and are less likely to default on student loans.

Still, where students go to college matters because the returns from higher education are not equal. In particular, top public colleges tend to promote more certain academic success and provide a wider array of post-graduate options.

This analysis shows that black and Latino students are disproportionally less able to access the schools with the best returns, which limits their ability to get the most out of college. And if the nation ignores questions about where people go to college—and focuses solely on the fact that they enroll—it will fail to address inequities in the system. Instead, America needs to make sure that underrepresented minority students have access to top public colleges so that the nation’s higher education system does not continue to exacerbate existing inequities.

Note: See Appendix tables to examine this data state by state. 

Elizabeth Baylor is the Director of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.