For many American college students, the nation's higher education system increasingly is defined by two distinct paths.
The first, taken primarily by white students, leads to the top U.S. institutions, while the other — taken mostly by blacks and Hispanic students — leads to community colleges and less prestigious open-access schools, according to a major study of college enrollment patterns over the past 20 years.
After decades of affirmative-action and diversity programs, the study released by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce suggests that racial equality has not arrived on American campuses, analysts say.
"As much as the nation has tried, we're not in the ideal place," said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "The charge often leveled at institutions of higher education is that of political correctness, that institutions are rigging the system in favor of minorities. Far from it."
The Georgetown report finds that since 1995, more than 80 percent of all new enrollments by white students have come at the nation's most "elite and competitive" 468 institutions.
By contrast, more than 70 percent of all new black and Hispanic students have enrolled at the nation's "open-access two-year and four-year colleges," a designation that includes community colleges and less-selective universities.
The number of whites attending those open-access schools has declined during the same period, the data show. In 1995, 69 percent of the enrollees at open-access colleges were white; the percentage dropped to 57 percent by 2009.
Even among the nation's brightest students, skin color still plays a major role when picking a college, according to the report. More than 30 percent of black and Hispanic students with a high school grade-point average of 3.5 or higher attend a community college, compared to only 22 percent of whites with the same grades.
Those differences highlight the growing problem of "stratification" in American higher education, according to Jennifer Engle, vice president for policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
"When you look at the trend lines, you see increasing numbers of low-income students gaining access to higher education, but they're increasingly stratified to community colleges, two-year institutions, and for-profit and online education," she said Monday.
The problem has its roots, in part, in America's high schools, particularly those populated mainly by low-income students.
"At the end of the day, if our big-city schools are not producing the kinds of educational outcomes that we should absolutely demand of them, then you will end up with the effect of poverty, racial disparities and unfair ethnic treatment manifesting themselves at the college level," Mr. Nassirian said.
While the complex problem of education inequality in American high schools clearly is part of the problem, other, simpler issues also play a part.
Wealthier students — or their parents — can afford to apply to multiple colleges, with application costs that sometimes approach $100.
Generally, the more prestigious the institution, the higher the application fee. Stanford University, for example, is the highest in the nation at $90, according to a 2012 analysis by U.S. News and World Report.
"Low-income students, in general, frequently will apply to only one school. In some ways they're self-selecting out" of more prestigious, expensive schools and only trying for "safe" schools, Ms. Engle said.
For black and Hispanic students, the Georgetown report shows that, if they're applying to just one school, it's much more likely it'll be an affordable community college, rather than the Stanfords and Harvards of the world.
Those less-expensive institutions play an important role in the U.S. higher education system, but attending one by no means guarantees a student will get a degree.
Just 12 percent of students who start at a community college, for example, go on to earn a bachelor's degree within six years, according to data from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
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