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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Expert Opinion

In 2004, The New York Times published "Top Colleges Take More Blacks, but Which Ones?" a story noting the increasing proportion of immigrant black students at Harvard. Having studied differences in college attendance between blacks and whites, assistant professor of sociology Pamela R. Bennett, together with her collaborator, Amy Lutz of Syracuse University, wanted now to understand the place of immigrant blacks in higher education. Looking at a national sample, they discovered that immigrant black students were more likely than their white and non-immigrant black peers to attend elite colleges and universities--findings published recently in the journal Sociology of Education.

Q: Why do immigrant black students have such a comparitively high rate of attending selective colleges/universities, and what can we learn from that?

A: Immigrant blacks are more likely to attend selective colleges for reasons related to their socioeconomic family background. Whereas half of native black high school graduates come from two-parent families, two-thirds of immigrant black students do so. Twice the proportion of immigrant blacks attended private schools compared to native blacks (12.6 percent versus 5.9 percent). These differences matter, because students who attended private schools were 2.9 times more likely to attend selective colleges than those from public schools. Immigrant and native blacks also have large differences in their regional distributions. Almost half of immigrant blacks in our national sample resided in the Northeast, while a full 70.5 percent of native blacks resided in the South. Students who lived in the Northeast were 2.5 times more likely to attend a selective college than were students from the South.

These findings help us evaluate other explanations that have been proposed for immigrant blacks' greater representation in selective colleges, such as ones that stress cultural differences between them and native blacks. Our findings suggest that advantages in family and educational resources facilitate enrollment in selective colleges. Therefore, if colleges and universities wish to continue to increase the representation of blacks on their campuses, we would do well to make greater investments in the social and economic resources that both immigrant and native blacks bring to the college-going process.

Samuel Iser

Pamela R. Bennett