The study’s goal was to examine reasons behind the high level of diversity in heritage and socioeconomic levels within black student populations at 28 American universities, said Camille Z. Charles, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. The report was published in last month’s American Journal of Education (AJE).
According to data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen conducted in 1999, immigrants account for 26.7 percent of black students at the universities used in the AJE study. At Ivy League schools, the statistic reached 40.6 percent.
Because first- and second-generation immigrants only accounted for 13 percent of all 18- and 19-year-old black students, according to the Current Population Survey conducted the same year, the numbers show that recent black immigrants are represented in these universities at higher proportions than in the general population, the study says.
Charles said the gap had less to do with value systems of immigrants as a group, and more with who immigrants tend to be.
“In practical terms, immigrants, no matter what color they are, are a highly selective group of people,” she said.
“At some level, there will always be an immigrant-native difference because you only get the most motivated, best prepared, cream-of-the-crop set of immigrants,” since their families have had to leave their native countries and start anew in the United States, she said.
While the Harvard College admissions office does not keep statistics of students’ status as recent immigrants, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said that variation in black students’ cultural backgrounds at the College is apparent.
The study also cites a higher rate of parental education in children of immigrants, which some scholars say reflects unfair admissions preferences for individuals with privileged backgrounds.
“Even with the expansion of financial aid, the number of students at selective universities are from privilege,” said Lani Guinier ’71, the Boskey professor of law at Harvard.
Such disparities, she added, reflect a tendency for universities to seek to bolster public image through the diversity of their applicant pool.
“Diversity statistics tend to camouflage or justify that preference,” she said.
According to Fitzsimmons, Harvard conducts its admissions decisions completely need-blind, and there are no quotas for the admission of international or domestic students. But the admissions office, he said, does recognize that educational opportunity is limited for those students with less privileged economic backgrounds, and admissions officers try to take that into account.
“There is no question that there is a high correlation between families’ economic background over time and the educational opportunity students have,” Fitzsimmons said.
He added that the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative—which eliminates the financial contribution for families earning less than $60,000 a year—aims to reach out to talented students from various socioeconomic backgrounds.
According to the study, there was no significant difference in the socioeconomic makeup of immigrant and African-American students at the 28 institutions.
Jason C. B. Lee ’08, president of the Black Students Association (BSA) said that the diversity within the black student community at Harvard has been discussed widely by the BSA in public and private forums.
“It creates a different definition of what it means to be black,” he said. “The idea of being black is not the same when you come from a place where everyone is black and when you come from a place where it is a defining description.”
—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.