Encounters with racism and cultural stereotypes might hurt young blacks and members of other minority groups in high school, but a Canadian study indicates that any performance distinctions in elementary and high school disappear once such students enter a university.
Earlier this year, a study by the Toronto Board of Education found disproportionately low grades and high dropout rates for black and Portuguese youngsters.
But a study by the Institute for Social Research at Toronto's York University found little difference in the average grades of students from different racial or economic backgrounds.
The study "shows that once you get into university, your racial or social class doesn't work against you," said Paul Grayson, the sociology professor who directed the study. "What this means is the university is working for a large and diverse population."
Grayson's study of more than 1,100 first-year students was triggered by his concern that Canadian policy-makers rely too heavily on U.S. studies that found lower grades and graduation rates for black university students.
The Canadian study found grades averaged 70 percent for students from European backgrounds, 69 percent for East Indians, 68 percent for blacks and 67 percent for other students, including Iranians, Central Americans and Southeast Asians.
The average grades were consistent across family income levels, Grayson said, noting 62 percent of black and Chinese students, 55 percent of East Indian students and 44 percent of students with a European background reported family incomes of $35,000 or less in U.S. dollars.
While all first-year students faced an average drop of 9 percent in their grades from their final year of high school, black students reported the smallest average drop in achievement, he continued.
"If you were to ask most people, they would assume black students are doing poorly and Chinese students are doing extremely well," he said. "In actual fact, though, there tends to be very little difference between the students based on their race and income levels."
Yet, the stereotypes black and other minority students face before university might have an effect on university enrollment rates.
While high school students of European origin constitute 54 percent of the city's high school population, they account for 74 percent of the university's students. On the other side, blacks constitute 9 percent of Toronto high school students, but only 5 percent of the student at the university.
Andre Bastian, who immigrated from the Bahamas 10 years ago and is now president of the York Federation of Students, said the university isn't "totally devoid of racism, but there is much more acceptance of different cultures, different backgrounds here as compared to high school."
Grayson said the institute will continue to track the students' performance throughout their university careers.