The New York Times reported today that “Blacks and Hispanics are more underrepresentated at top colleges than 35 years ago.” Is this correct?

The short answer is yes with respect to blacks and no with respect to hispanics.

The Times presents a series of graphs that show the raw percentage difference of underrepresentation. For example, the times reports that “Black students are just 6 percent of freshmen but 15 percent of college-age Americans” and therefore show a graph with a 9 percent (15-6 percent) difference. This has expanded from about a 7 percent difference. The raw percentage differences appear small and don’t really tell the story. A 5% difference between 80 and 85% is very different than a 5% difference between 10 and 15%.

Because of this issue, the ratio of enrollment to college-age population is a much better measure. Using the ratio, we can calculate that blacks enroll only at about 40% (6%/15%) of their population percentage. Back in 1980, it was closer to 45% (6%/13%), so it’s gotten a little worse and the Times is correct.

From the graphs shown by the Times, we can see that Hispanics are currently (2015) 22% of the population but only 13% of freshman enrollment. This gap is 9%, far larger than the 3% gap in 1980, and therefore the Times concludes the situation has worsened. Though it is larger on a pure percentage basis, is actually better in 2015, and the Times conclusion is wrong with respect to Hispanics. Hispanics went from an enrollment ratio of 50% (3%/6%) in 1980 to one of 60% (13%/22%). This appears to be true not just overall but in all the breakdowns the Times shows.

The Times article has a number of graphs showing the percentage enrollment, but doesn’t address the reasons for the deficit. You can’t very well enroll in college without a high school degree and the Times’ numbers (except for 1980) are for number of people in the right age group and not number of people with high school diplomas. Lack of a diploma would indicate an issue not with the universities but a deficit earlier on.

And a diploma is not the only requirement for college enrollment. A proper comparison would look at similarly situated individuals where the only difference is racial or ethnic background. Only this sort of comparison could tease out the real effect of universities (as opposed to other reasons for the differences). As another recent article has discussed, even though Asians are over-represented, they may still face racial discrimination because there may be even more qualified Asians than are admitted.