Impact of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision on Postsecondary Participation of African Americans, The

Impact of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision on Postsecondary Participation of African Americans, The

Harvey, William B

Although specifically directed toward the nation’s K-12 schools, Brown v. Board also opened wider the doors of postsecondary education for African Americans. The landmark decision has led to increased enrollment of African American students in predominantly White colleges and universities. Still, 50 years after the Supreme Court’s ruling, African Americans are still proportionately underrepresented in these institutions, which are frequently unwelcoming and sometimes even hostile settings.

Many Americans, especially those of African descent, thought that a new era was dawning when on May 17, 1954 the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision declaring that racial segregation in the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional. The court’s pronouncement, along with its subsequent declaration that the decision be implemented “with all deliberate speed,” offered the impression that school desegregation would be swift and certain. The reality has been quite the opposite. Although some progress toward integration has occurred since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, particularly in the South, across the nation, K-12 schools are still significantly segregated by race. “More than 70% of the nation’s Black students now attend predominantly minority schools,” according to a recent report from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard (Orfield, 2001). In the last decade of the 20th century, the percentage of White students attending public schools with Black students actually decreased since 1988, and the figure was lower in 2000 than in 1970. At the start of the 21st century, the top 27 largest school systems were overwhelmingly non-White and segregated (Williams, 2003).

While the text of the Brown decision was about segregation at the elementary and secondary school level, the subtext was about justice and equality throughout the educational arena and the entire social system. So, as the Court decision began to be applied at the postsecondary level, the doors of colleges and universities that had been closed to African Americans were also flung open. As we examine the result of the Court’s ruling 50 years later, aggregate enrollment patterns in the nation’s colleges and universities appear to show quite a different outcome than in the K-12 schools. At the time of the Brown decision, segregation was as pervasive in the nation’s colleges and universities as it was in the K-12 systems, and nearly all African American students received their undergraduate education in the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). However, by the end of the 20th century, the great majority of these students were enrolled in postsecondary institutions that are predominantly White. On that basis, one could argue that the student enrollment figures suggest that racial integration has been more extensive, and, thus, ostensibly more effective at the collegiate level than at the K-12 level.

A dramatic increase in the enrollment of African American students in colleges and universities took place during the second half of the 20th century, and a similar situation occurred for other groups of color, whereas enrollment peaked for Whites in the early 1991. For African Americans, the figures vacillated somewhat in the mid 1980s from the level that had been reached at the beginning of the decade, but, by 1987, their numbers and those of other students of color enrolled in the nation’s colleges and universities were moving upward in a steady and consistent fashion, and they have continued to do so. Fifty percent more African Americans were matriculated in postsecondary institutions in 2001, compared to twenty years earlier.

Over the last two decades of the 20th century, the rate of growth for African American enrollment was more than double the growth rate of White students, and, specifically, during the last decade of the century, the rate of increase accelerated to a level that was three times higher than that of Whites. According to Kluger (2004),

Scanning the half-century since Brown was handed down from the white marble temple of justice close by the nation’s Capitol, what can we say with confidence about the transforming effect of the event on the national psyche and the condition of African Americans in particular? At the least, we can say it brought to an end more than three centuries of an officially sanctioned mind-set embracing white supremacy and excusing a massive and often pitiless oppression, (p. B12)

At an elementary level, we can also say that the Supreme Court decision exposed the duplicity of the nation’s predominantly White institutions (PWIs) of higher learning, which characterized themselves as fair-minded, thoughtful settings where appropriately qualified students and professors engaged in the search for truth and the pursuit of knowledge. Prior to the Brown decision, except in very rare and unusual circumstances, it was not necessarily the depth of one’s intellect that was the appropriate qualification to gain entry into the academy, but the color of one’s skin. In the half-century since Brown, there are increasing numbers of African Americans who are enrolling in PWIs, who are receiving degrees at every level from associate to doctorate, and who are holding faculty and administrative positions in these institutions. Therefore, it would be unreasonable not to acknowledge these changes as a sign of social progress.

There is also a continuing gap between the rates of postsecondary attainment for Africans American as compared to Whites, and there are numerous obstacles and barriers at all levels that African Americans must continue to face within the higher education arena, which must also be acknowledged. The manifestation of an increasingly conservative political climate has had the effect of raising the anxiety level of some educational and political leaders whenever the ongoing discrepancies between the success rates of African Americans and Whites at each level of higher education are pointed out and remedies are proposed. Meanwhile, status-quo oriented interest groups and individuals across the nation, under the distorted slogan of “colorblindness,” have mounted relentless attacks against affirmative action and the existence of programs that attempt to compensate for the prior intentional exclusion of African Americans from PWIs. The long-term outcomes of these actions are yet to be seen, but there is great cause to be concerned that the relatively limited progress that African Americans have been able to make in the academy since Brown may very well be on the verge of being rolled back. Even with the recent Supreme Court decisions in the University of Michigan cases affirming the value of diversity in higher education, some institutions are already reducing the resources and programs that had been put in place to support African Americans.


For past generations of African Americans, the HBCUs have been the saving grace in regards to accessing higher education. Since their inception, the HBCUs have been the foundation on which the “talented tenth” of the African American community’s civic, political, and social leadership has been developed. These colleges and universities were available to African Americans when, even outside the South, gaining attendance to a postsecondary institution where White students were the majority population was a very difficult proposition. Segregation resulted in the enrollment of the best and brightest of the African American community in the HBCUs, and the long list of notable individuals who received their baccalaureate degrees from these institutions is truly impressive. Still, the Brown decision not only opened the doors of the public schools to African Americans, but also resulted in the desegregation of the academy, with the ultimate result being that 50 years after the Court’s ruling, a significant majority of African American students now enroll in PWIs, rather than HBCUs, as they pursue higher education (Harvey, 2003).

In the 1960s and 1970s, just as desegregation began to take hold in the PWIs, college enrollments began to increase rapidly, especially for African Americans and Whites. Several factors spurred this phenomenon, including the growing traditional college-age population caused by the maturation of the baby boomers, the increased availability of financial aid, a greater emphasis on the social and economic value of a college education, and in the White institutions that had previously excluded or limited African American enrollment, the threat of possibly having federal funds withheld for practicing discrimination. Whereas a high school diploma might have seemed sufficient to the previous generation, the ticket to a secure future increasingly came to be seen as a bachelor’s degree, and African Americans took this message to heart.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century the total number of students of all races enrolled in postsecondary institutions was at an all-time high (see Table 1). Prior to the Brown decision, de jure segregation excluded African Americans from southern colleges and universities, and de facto segregation had a similar effect in the North, so the HBCUs were essentially the only higher education option available to the great majority of aspiring African American collegians. As noted, record enrollment of African American students occurred in 2000-2001, but an examination of the enrollment distribution patterns provides some interesting insights. From the standpoint of sheer numbers, the HBCUs continued to be very popular destinations for African American students; as during the 2000-2001 year, this cohort of institutions also experienced record enrollments. In fact, not only did the HBCUs enroll the largest number of African American students in history, but also the largest number of Hispanic students, as well as the second largest number of White students. (see Table 2.) However, in substantial contrast to the period prior to the Brown decision, the 233,169 African American students in these institutions represented only about 13.5% of the total postsecondary enrollment of this cohort of college matriculants, with nearly all of the remaining 86.5% attending predominantly White two- and four-year institutions (a few thousand students attended various two and four-year colleges and universities that are identified as “predominantly Black institutions,” which are mostly urban-located, such as Chicago State University, Essex Community College in Newark, N.J. or Southeastern University in Washington, DC).

So, even while HBCU enrollments have shown significant increases over the 20-year period from 1980-2001, peaking at an all time high in 2000-2001 with 287,613 students of all races, during the same time period the enrollment of African American students in the predominantly White institutions of higher education also increased. The result was a decline in the percentage of the total African American students who chose to be educated in HBCUs, down from almost 17% of this cohort enrolled in these institutions in 1980, and a similar percentage in 1990 (Harvey, 2003). During that 10-year period, the total numbers of African American students increased by about 240,000, but only 21,767 of these students who chose to enroll in HBCUs (see Tables 1 and 2).

As with the enrollment figures, the aggregate numbers of baccalaureate degrees awarded by the HBCUs also increased from 1980 to 2001, even while the percentage of degrees awarded by these institutions decreased from 32.2% to 22.4% of the total number of African American bachelor degree recipients during that period. Their increasing enrollments, despite the competition from majority institutions, lead one to surmise that the HBCUs continue to provide environments where African American students feel that they can learn from and interact with significant numbers of mentors and role models of the same race, as well as with racial peers who have similarly high aspirations and expectations for success. As a cohort of institutions, HBCUs have manifested a greater measure of racial integration than PWIs, with slightly more than 13% of their enrollment composed of White students in 2001. (see Table 2.) In four-year PWIs, however, African Americans represented slightly more than 8% of their enrollment in 2001.


An important factor to take into account in examining the postsecondary enrollment patterns of African American students is the expansion of the two-year or community colleges. It was also in the 1960s and 1970s, during the early years of integration, that these institutions began to proliferate substantially, and they are now not only an important part of the postsecondary educational enterprise, but in some states they enroll more students than the four-year institutions. Community colleges emerged in response to the increasing interest in higher education among the American population, and they were in sync with the populist sentiments of the time because they also reflected a shift away from the selective, even elitist, perspective that many four-year colleges and universities tended to embody.

For the most part, the community colleges were higher education institutions that could be attended by anyone who possessed a high school diploma, or even a general equivalency diploma for that matter, which made them accessible to many individuals who would not have been able to meet the more stringent academic requirements for admission to four-year institutions. In addition, the range of courses offered by the two-year colleges usually includes vocational and technical offerings, which were designed to facilitate employability, thus, attracting a broader range of students than would attend the four-year institutions. Furthermore, the costs of matriculating at the community colleges tended to be less expensive, and the colleges were frequently located in settings that made them more accessible than four-year colleges and universities. This combination of factors resulted in the community colleges becoming the higher education destination of choice for large numbers of African American students.

In the pecking order of postsecondary institutions, community colleges are considered to fall below four-year colleges and universities, for several reasons. They offer associate and not bachelor’s degrees, their students are considered to be less academically capable, their transfer rates to four-year institutions are low, the faculty usually hold master’s degrees rather than doctorates, and the institutions are still relatively new on the higher education scene. Depending on one’s perspective, community colleges can be considered as structural devices which either permit easier entry into the academy for larger numbers of individuals or which effectively limit the access of individuals to baccalaureate-granting institutions.

The most recent national survey data available indicate that in 2000-2001, community colleges enrolled about 42% of the African American students who were matriculants in higher education. Moreover, when the numbers of African American students at HBCUs is subtracted from the enrollment figures of African Americans at four-year PWIs, it becomes clear that there is only a small difference between the total enrollment of African Americans in two-year institutions (734,900) and four year PWIs (762,231). Adjusted enrollment figures also reveal that from 19802001, the percentage of growth for African American students at the four-year PWIs for the period was slightly higher than 70%. Furthermore, by the year 2001, more than three times as many African American students were enrolled in two-year institutions than were enrolled in HBCUs.


Enrollment of African American students in predominantly White colleges and universities is an important measure of racial integration, but the representation of African Americans at the faculty level also holds great significance. While, depending on the kind of institution, individual students are present on the campus of a college or university for a period of two to five years, faculty members may be present at a particular institution for a period of three to four decades. Obviously, prior to the Brown decision, only an infinitesimal number of African Americans were provided with the opportunity to hold faculty positions outside the HBCUs. Affirmative action notwithstanding, the representation of African American faculty at predominantly White colleges and universities remains disappointingly low, and the percentage has increased only marginally over the past 20 years.

In 1980, the percentage of African American faculty in all institutions of higher education was only 4.3%. (see Table 4.) Twenty years later, the overall percentage of African American faculty had only increased to 5.1%, a figure which includes individuals who are employed at the HBCUs; therefore, the actual African American representation at PWIs may be as low as 3%. Thus, African American students at PWIs have very limited opportunities to encounter African American faculty, who by their mere presence, support the idea that diversity is welcomed and appreciated (Washington & Harvey, 1989). A miniscule number of African American faculty also leaves White students and White faculty deprived of the opportunity to benefit from the perspectives, outlooks, and considerations of individuals whose life experiences are quite likely to be different from their own and from other members of their racial group.


An appointment at the top level of any organization has both substantive and symbolic importance, so perhaps the “ultimate” symbol of racial integration in the nation’s predominantly White colleges and universities is the appointment of African Americans to the chief executive officer position in these institutions. In this regard, progress has moved slowly since the landmark appointment of Clifton Wharton to the presidency of Michigan State University in 1971. In reviewing the most recent data available for the period from 1993-2000, one finds that the appointment of African Americans to positions of President or Chancellor (CEO) in both two and four year colleges and universities occurs at a very slow pace. The disaggregated figures for four-year institutions are especially disappointing since the total figure of 137 also includes 102 chief executive officers at the HBCUs, thus leaving only 35 African Americans holding CEO positions at 1,921 four-year PWIs. (see Table 5.)

The appointment of Ruth Simmons as President of Brown University was noteworthy, since she is the first person of color to lead an Ivy League university. Surprisingly, the most highly paid University president in the nation, of any race or gender, is also an African American woman (Basinger, 2003). Shirley Jackson, the President of Renssalear Polytechnic Institute holds that distinction, and this is a situation that was clearly beyond imagining at the time of Brown, or perhaps even as recently as 10 years ago. In addition, African American males have recently been appointed to the top positions of university systems in Midwest states, Adam Herbert in Indiana and Elson Floyd in Missouri, so there is some limited progress being made at the top institutional levels of a small number of PWIs. Experience gained as the President or Chancellor of an HBCU apparently does not make these individuals attractive candidates for similar positions at PWIs. Despite similar, if not identical, job responsibilities and expectations, very few African Americans have been able to transfer the skills and abilities that they have honed in HBCUs to “crossover” to PWIs in CEO positions.

It appears that African Americans might have greater opportunities to become a CEO of a postsecondary institution at one of the two-year colleges. Of the 1168 institutions in this cohort in 2003, 76 of them had African American presidents, which represents about 6.5%. The rate is substantially higher than the 2% figure for African American CEOs at the four-year institutions, but undoubtedly some of these community colleges have student bodies where people of color are in the majority, which may very well be a factor in the appointment of the President. African American women clearly have a better opportunity to reach the CEO position in a community college than in a four-year institution. While the percentage of African American women presidents to men is 40% in the community colleges, the corresponding figure for four-year institutions, including the HBCUs, is only about 22%.

Since African American women students outnumber men at every level of higher education, and the numbers of faculty are almost evenly split between the two genders, it will be interesting to see whether there are significantly larger numbers of women appointed to CEO positions in the future, especially in the HBCUs.

Integration versus Inclusion

The sense of marginal inclusion felt by many African American students at predominantly White colleges and universities has not gone unchallenged by them. The contradiction between the institutions’ stated goal of integration, and the minimal numbers of African American faculty, upper-level administrators, and students has real and tangible consequences that can be observed in students’ behaviors and patterns of social interaction. Within predominantly White institutions, African American students frequently choose not to participate in racially integrated campus activities, instead forming African American student unions, joining African American fraternities and sororities, and/or living in all African American dormitories. Although they remain in the integrated environment of the college campus, African American students often seek to escape temporarily from the White-dominated university setting, and surround themselves with other African Americans.

By withdrawing from integrated spaces, African American students can establish what Harvey and King (2004) describe as closed sociocultural spaces. These spaces may be fully closed, wherein they are comprised exclusively of members of the same racial group, or semi-closed, meaning that a few members of other racial groups are allowed to enter. In these spaces, African Americans depart from integrated company to interact in more familiar and comfortable modes, validate their own humanity, and/or cope with the interracial tensions they may experience in integrated spaces. The presence of these spaces, then, can actually help African Americans to continue functioning in integrated environments. In these spaces, Black students develop a collective strength that “allows them to coexist with Whites, to defend themselves, and to survive in the White-defined spaces without feeling completely powerless” (Feagin, Vera, & Imani, 1996, p. 74).

Others consider the “withdrawal” of African American students from integrated spaces into racially segregated spaces as inappropriate and self-defeating, and they criticize the postsecondary institutions that facilitate such actions and support such behavior (Afshar-Mohajer & Sung, 2002). They contend that “by bringing together a diversity of students and supplying the resources needed to engender new and original thoughts, colleges and universities have the potential to encourage their students to freely exchange ideas and challenge each other’s thinking. These students hopefully will go on to continue the growth and change necessary to contribute to thriving democracy.” In what could be construed as an argument that blames African American students for the manifestation of racism and discrimination on predominantly White college campuses and castigates them for establishing living and social arrangements where they can feel safe and supported at these institutions, Afshar-Mohajer and Sung claim that:

…through color-coding, today’s institutions of higher education have done a disservice to both minority and nonminority students. Segregated housing, courses, and program disseminate poisonous stereotypes and falsehoods about race and ethnicity. They limit interaction between minority and non-minority students and reward separatist thinking. By discouraging Whites, and sometimes Asians from minority-specific programs, they deny equal interaction on campus, (p. 25)

Still others expand on the argument that such spaces promote negative, inaccurate perceptions about race. They assert that attempts to formulate and maintain closed spaces are detrimental to minorities because they encourage African American students to see themselves as victims of White racism (Steele, 1990; McWhorter, 2000). This line of thinking contends that because White racism is consistently diminishing to the point where it is virtually nonexistent, the reliance on all African-American environments leads students to embrace an identity of victimization. It is this identity, they argue, that hinders African American students from success and advancement during the college years and later in life.

Some sociological studies of ethnicity also suggest that the unwillingness to assimilate or blend into the dominant cultural group has adverse effects for minorities. Consequences of non-assimilation can include “exclusion of outsiders, excess claims on group members, restrictions on individual freedoms, and downward leveling norms” (Portes, 1998, p. 15). By associating with coethnics, minorities are considered to minimize their opportunities to integrate into the dominant group’s greater access to social rewards.

These arguments, however, fail to take into consideration the more complex interracial dynamics that result from integration at predominantly White institutions. For example, there is the ongoing litany of racist comments and actions that are directed against African American students, in speech and deed, on predominantly White college campuses across the country, suggesting that the changes of attitude and behavior, along with conscious and intentional acts of outreach and engagement, need to come from White students towards their African American counterparts, rather than the other way around. At the great majority of PWIs, the African American presence remains small, and the students often feel socially and psychologically isolated by the majority population, thus creating the backdrop for the measures that are developed to maintain group protection and self-esteem through collective engagement. Myers displays the same patronizing and condescending attitude as Afshar-Mohajer and Sung, when he supports their observations by attacking these measures as “insidious because they defy and betray the real purposes of higher education” (Young, 2002).

At many PWIs, African American students find themselves in situations where even the few students of color who are well positioned as campus leaders, or as outstanding students, must constrain their behavior to the preferences and beliefs of their White peers. Because Whites are such a dominant numerical majority among the student body, professoriate, and upper-level administration, African American students feel that their behavior is governed by the perspectives, tastes, and cultural norms of the majority (Feagin et al., 1996). In such a context, very few conflicts that occur are likely to be resolved in favor of the minority point of view. Similarly, the preferences or priorities of African American students are unlikely to be reflected in formal and informal mixed-group decision-making. For African Americans at PWIs, integration often means conformity to another group’s preferences and beliefs. Inherently, such conformity is not a problem, but when it occurs in a context of the American racial power imbalance, it can be experienced as a continuation of the oppression or exclusion that pervades American society.

In the context of this broader, more accurate view of the racial dynamics that occur at PWIs, the challenges that face African American students on these racially integrated campuses are numerous and often daunting. African American students continue to experience problems that stem, at worst, from racial discrimination or prejudice and, at best, from some Whites’ ignorance of African American culture. Specifically, African American students find that professors frequently doubt their intellectual capabilities and subscribe to racist stereotypes about their intelligence (Ellis, 2002).

African American students find that, when interacting with White peers, they are frequently called upon to correct misconceptions and stereotypes about African American culture. Some argue that, as the parties who integrate the university setting, African Americans are uniquely situated to dismantle these stereotypes and thus limit their occurrences. However, being constantly forced to assume the role of racial ambassadors who must champion the integrity, cultural values, and ultimately even the right to an education for African Americans, can quickly become tiresome. Furthermore, this extra responsibility undermines feelings of belonging for African Americans, causes intense feelings of frustration and anger, and essentially serves as a reminder that they are not fully welcome on the campuses of predominantly White institutions (Feagin et al., 1996; Feagin, 2002).

In these closed socioculturel spaces, African American students are able to draw upon the tools, strength, and support that they need to continue functioning in an educational environment that can replicate racial inequalities. They are relieved from the pressure to stifle racial perspectives or attitudes that might be negatively perceived by their White counterparts, and perhaps more importantly, they experience a reprieve from the insidious messages of African American inferiority with which these students are frequently bombarded. When African American students can create spaces where they can, at least temporarily, gain a respite from the problems that accompany integrating predominantly White campuses, they benefit from the opportunity to validate themselves and others like them. This kind of support can only help them as they matriculate at predominantly White institutions, where integration may occur in terms of a small numerical presence, but still often leaves African American students out of the mainstream.


Significant changes in the higher education enrollment patterns of African American students have taken place following the Brown v. Board decision. Whereas prior to the Court’s ruling, almost all African American undergraduate students attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities, postsecondary enrollment patterns in the twenty-first century show that the large majority of African Americans now matriculate at predominantly White institutions. In the year 2000-2001, more than 1.7 million African American students were pursuing a college education, and slightly more than 42% or 734,000 of them were enrolled in two-year institutions. Four-year PWIs accounted for about 760,000 African American students, but this figure represented only about 8% of the total enrollment of these institutions. About 230,000 African American students are enrolled in the HBCUs. Judging by “headcount” alone, one could conclude that a greater amount of integration has taken place in colleges and universities than in the K-12 systems, but the continued, and even expanding, popularity of the HBCUs also indicates that they continue to be seen as not simply a viable option, but as the institutions of choice for a substantial portion of the African American college-going population. When African American students enroll in predominantly White colleges and universities, many of then still choose to interact and socialize in racially homogenous settings and groups. This phenomenon reflects a similar social orientation and participation patterns of other groups of color on predominantly White campuses; nevertheless, African Americans seem to be particularly criticized for this behavior. Curiously, the group-specific residential patterns and social activities of the dominant racial majority in these institutions are rarely called into question. The onus for breaking down the barriers between the different racial groups is placed on the minority populations, rather than on the majority.

Few among us would wish for the return of the “bad old days” of de jure racial segregation, and limited opportunities for African Americans; but it should be clear that even today in our institutions of higher education, integration has not yet resulted in equal opportunities for all. The larger lesson of Brown, the lesson that connects the experiences of African Americans on college and university campuses to that of the larger social order, is that

…advocates of racial justice should rely less unjudicial decisions and more on tactics, actions, and even attitudes that challenge the continuing assumptions of White dominance. History, as well as current events, call for realism in our racial dealings. Traditional statements of freedom and justice for all, the usual fare on celebratory occasions, serve to mask continuing manifestations of inequality that beset and divide people along lines of color and class. These divisions have been exploited to enable an uneasy social stability, but at a cost that is not less onerous because it is all too obvious to Blacks and all but invisible to a great many Whites. (Bell, 2004, p. BlO)


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Williams, J. (2003). Thurgood Marshall: The man and his enduring but endangered legacy. The College Board Review, p. 16.

Young, J. (2002, October 10). Report faults minority-student programs at colleges as segregationist. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

William B. Harvey American Council on Education

Adia M. Harvey Hollins University

Mark King Middle Tennessee State University


WILLIAM B. HARVEY is Vice President and Director, Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity, American Council on Education.

ADIA M. HARVEY is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Hollins University.

MARK KING is a Geier Fellow in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Middle Tennessee State University.

All queries or comments regarding this article should be addressed to William_Harvey@ace.nche. edu.

Copyright Howard University Summer 2004

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