Social Science

While the racial/ethnic gap in college graduation rates in the United States is ... est-income students typically borrow to help pay their tuition bills at private institutions ..... Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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Social Science Research xxx (2007) xxx–xxx



Overlapping disadvantages and the racial/ethnic graduation gap among students attending selective institutions Sigal Alon



Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel

Abstract Using a configurational approach, I examine the extent to which the intersection between background attributes can account for racial and ethnic gaps in graduation likelihood among students attending elite institutions in the United States. The results, which are based on the College & Beyond database, demonstrate the compounding effect of multiple disadvantages on students’ graduation likelihood, above and beyond the unique hardship associated with each background characteristic. Under-represented minority students are more likely to suffer from overlapping disadvantages than whites and Asians, but given similar constellations of disadvantages most minority students perform as well as whites. However, black students with overlapping disadvantages are slightly less likely to graduate than their white configuration-counterparts. About third of the overall race gap is attributed to the compounding effect of overlapping disadvantages on blacks’ achievement. That black male students with overlapping disadvantages are the most vulnerable group of all reveals an intersection between gender, race and class. Ó 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Keywords: Graduation gap; Overlapping disadvantages; Double disadvantage; Intersectionality; Configurations; Minorities; Elite institutions; Gender gap; Feminist theory


I thank the Mellon Foundation for permission to use the College & Beyond database and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments. * Fax: +972 3 6409215. E-mail address: [email protected] 0049-089X/$ - see front matter Ó 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2007.01.006

Please cite this article in press as: Alon, S., Overlapping disadvantages and the ..., Social Sci. Res. (2007), doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2007.01.006


S. Alon / Social Science Research xxx (2007) xxx–xxx

1. Introduction Given the increasing market returns to a college diploma it is disconcerting that the racial/ ethnic gap in the attainment of a bachelor’s degree grew over time (Kao and Thompson, 2003; Mare, 1995). While the racial/ethnic gap in college graduation rates in the United States is smaller at academically selective schools than in the overall student population, minority students attending these selective institutions are still less likely than whites or Asians to graduate (Bowen and Bok, 1998; Alon and Tienda, 2005). The societal need for a better representation of all groups in business, government, and the professions provides a compelling motivation for uncovering the roots of the racial/ethnic gap in attainment of a bachelor’s degree among this very select group of students. Such understanding is also important because the racial/ethnic gap in graduation is taken by some as an indication of the failure of affirmative action policies practiced by the most selective colleges and universities (see, for example, claims expressed by Sowell, 2003; Thernstrom and Thernstrom, 1997). The most straightforward explanation for the racial/ethnic gap in educational attainment is that minority students lack the resources needed for academic success. First, despite improvements in test scores in recent decades, black and Hispanic high school graduates still lag well behind Asians and whites in this regard (Camburn, 1990; Jencks and Phillips, 1998; Miller, 1995). Even among students enrolled at selective institutions, both blacks and Hispanics averaged test scores well below the respective institutional tier averages (Alon and Tienda, 2005). Since acad