On August 1, The New York Times reported that the Department of Justice would be “investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” On August 2, during a discussion on affirmative action, Fox News used misleading statistics to suggest that white students enroll in college at lower rates than black and Hispanic students.
During a segment discussing the Times’ report, America’s Newsroom co-host Shannon Bream presented two tables, first the table on the left, then the right, stating:
OK, I want to put up some numbers here just so people have a little bit of data in front of them to look at the official population estimates [left table]. This is the overall U.S. population. You can see the statistics there and you have the white population at 61.3 percent, and then a breakdown between black, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific Islanders. Now when you look at those [right table] the racial makeup of U.S. undergraduate students, it’s about 5 percent lower for white students and slightly higher for each of the other groups represented there.
By presenting these charts together, Bream is comparing apples to oranges. The racial composition of the entire U.S. population (shown in the left table) is substantially different from the racial makeup of 18- to 24-year-olds, the predominant undergraduate college-age population (right table). The median age of the white population in the United States is 12 years older than the median age of minority groups, the Pew Research Center has recently reported.
According to the Department of Education, the 18- to 24-year-old population in the United States in 2015 was estimated to be 55.7 percent white, 14.2 percent black, 22.3 percent Hispanic, and 4.5 percent Asian or Pacific Islander. While it is unclear what Education Department data Fox News was citing to describe the “racial makeup of U.S. undergraduates” in “Fall 2015,” the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that the demographic breakdown of enrolled college students in 2015 was fairly closely aligned with the demographic makeup of all college-age students: 57.6 percent of students were white, 14.1 percent were black, 17.3 percent were Hispanic, and 6.8 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander. According to these figures, whites were overrepresented in college by about 2 percent and Hispanics were underrepresented by 5 percent.
Research has shown that affirmative action does not impact the overall rate at which racial minority students enroll in college; rather, it helps minority students get into more selective colleges. According to a Brookings Institution study of state affirmative-action policies, “Affirmative action bans primarily shift minority student enrollment from more selective to less selective public universities while not reducing total enrollment.”