Higher-ed gains for minorities, but racial gaps persist at all levels

Despite some enrollment and achievement gains – particularly in higher education – large racial gaps persist at all levels of education, two studies released this week show.

The number of students of color enrolling and graduating from the nation's colleges and universities continues to climb steadily, according to an annual report on the status of minorities in higher education released Monday by the American Council on Education. College enrollment for minorities increased 3.3 percent in 2000, the ACE study found, and jumped 48.3 percent from 1990 to 1999.

The report also shows that students of color have experienced gains in attaining higher-education degrees from the associate to doctoral levels.

High school completion rates have also improved. Some 77 percent of African-Americans completed high school in 2000, an increase of 1 percent from the previous year, while the Hispanic completion rate rose slightly, to 59.6 percent.

Still, both groups lag behind white classmates, according to the ACE report. And, the authors argue, much remains to be done to ensure access for minority students.

"While the Minorities in Higher Education report shows increases in the college participation and degree-attainment rates of African-American and Hispanic students, it also reveals persisting gaps and disparities in educational access, opportunity, and attainment between members of these groups and their white counterparts," ACE president David Ward said.

One area that demands particular attention is the higher enrollment rates of minority students in special-education programs compared with whites.

A new book by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project (CRP) reports that African-American children are three times more likely to be labeled mentally retarded and almost twice as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed.

"The major problem is experienced by black children over identified for mental disturbance and mental retardation," says the book's co-editor Daniel Losen, a CRP research analyst.

Once identified as needing special education, minority students are more than twice as likely to be pulled out from mainstream classrooms and educated in separate settings.

Such separate placements undercut the goal of educating students in the least-restrictive environment possible, Mr. Losen says. "Both the research and the law recognize real benefits to being educated to the maximum extent possible with their nondisabled peers," Losen says. "The huge difference in educational settings for minority students suggests kids are not getting the benefit of inclusion."

The disparities are not explained by class or environment alone, researchers found. Racial bias or stereotyping may contribute to the higher minority-placement rates.

The CRP book recommends using strategies adopted in general education as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Among the recommendations: requiring schools to report more data on race and disability, increased technical support and services to reduce large racial disparities, and corrective action by civil rights authorities against districts that fail to act.

Inaction can have serious consequences, the book suggests. After graduating, minority special education students are more likely to be unemployed or to wind up in prison.

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