Race and Ethnicity in the College Classroom

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Minority students perform better in classes when their instructors are of the same race or ethnicity.

One of the most persistent features of the educational system in the United States is the achievement gap between minority students and non-minority students. African-American, Latino, and Native-American students have substantially lower test scores, grades, high school completion rates, college attendance rates, and college graduation rates than non-minority students.

In A Community College Instructor like Me: Race and Ethnicity Interactions in the Classroom (NBER Working Paper No. 17381), authors Robert Fairlie, Florian Hoffmann, and Philip Oreopoulos test whether minority instructors have a positive effect on the academic achievement of minority students at the college level. The authors analyze detailed demographic information on instructors and students from De Anza College, a large community college in the San Francisco Bay area of California. De Anza is one of the most ethnically diverse community colleges in the United States.

Community colleges currently enroll more than half of all minority students attending public universities and nearly half of all students attending public universities in the United States. In addition to providing workforce training, they serve as an important gateway to four-year colleges, and thus are a crucial part of the post-secondary educational system in the United States.

The researchers find that minority students perform better in classes when their instructors are of the same race or ethnicity. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans are 2.9 percentage points more likely to pass courses with instructors of similar background. These effects represent roughly half of the total gaps in classroom outcomes between white and underrepresented minority students at the college.

Moreover, the effects are particularly large for Black students. The class dropout rate is 6 percentage points lower for Black students relative to Whites when the course is taught by a Black instructor. And, conditional on completing the course, the relative fraction of Black students attaining a B-average or better is 13 percentage points higher than it would be otherwise.

These results suggest that the academic achievement gap between White and underrepresented minority college students would decrease by hiring more minority instructors. However, since all students appear to react positively when matched to instructors of a similar race or ethnicity, part of the decrease in the minority gap would come from worsening academic achievement for Whites.

--Lester Picker