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Grad Student Diversity at Risk?

July 18, 2012

Graduate professional enrollments of black, Latino and Native American students could drop significantly if the Supreme Court bars colleges from considering race in admissions, warns a new report. The fall could be particularly significant in engineering, where these enrollments are notably small.

The study – released by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles – arrives as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to consider in its next term whether colleges can consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions.

The case before the U.S. Supreme Court involves undergraduate admissions, and the landmark cases involving affirmative action in higher education to date have involved undergraduate, law and medical school admissions. The new UCLA report aims to focus attention on graduate enrollments outside of professional fields -- in the graduate programs that likewise produce societal leaders and, in some cases, academics.

The study examined minority graduate enrollments in four states -- California, Florida, Texas (where the ban has since been lifted) and Washington State -- that have had bans on the consideration of race in admissions decisions during the years since those bans were adopted. Across graduate programs, the enrollment of underrepresented minority groups has fallen 12 percent under the bans, with the share of these students among graduate student bodies falling from 9.9 percent to 8.7 percent. The following table shows shifts by field of study.

Minority Share of Graduate Enrollments in 4 States, Before and After Bans on Consideration of Race in Admissions

Field % of Minority Graduate Enrollments Before Ban % After Ban Drop Since Ban
Engineering 6.2% 4.6% -26%
Natural sciences 7.8% 6.3% -19%
Social sciences 12.1% 10.2.% -16%
Humanities 10.2% 9.0% -12%

Liliana Garces, assistant professor of higher education at George Washington University and author of the study, writes in the new report that these declines are “meaningful,” especially in the context of graduate education, where classes of admitted students are very small compared to undergraduate classes. "If a ‘critical mass’ of students of color is no longer enrolled, students of color who remain may experience feelings of ‘tokenism’ and stereotype threat, which can affect negatively an individual’s educational experience and persistence,” she writes.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, in a foreword to the study, writes that in light of the Supreme Court review of affirmative action, “it is vital to understand what impact the loss of affirmative action has had.” He adds that “[i]t is particularly important to consider graduate education since the major alternatives [to the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions] for undergraduate success -- the percent plan and admission by social and economic status -- cannot be applied to graduate admissions, where decisions are not made among students from a single state, undergraduate programs vary widely in terms of adequate preparation for graduate work, and students are admitted as adults, not on the basis of their family circumstances.”

Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a group that opposes the consideration of race in admissions, questioned the new report. In an interview, he said that there is considerable evidence that admitting students to demanding programs that they might not otherwise be admitted to because of the diversity they bring to a class frequently ends up hurting the beneficiaries, who may not perform as well academically.

He also said that there was no evidence that enrollment in these programs (across all groups) had declined. So while there may be "a rearrangement" of who makes up certain classes, that doesn't mean any loss of U.S. national capacity.

Some minority groups' graduate enrollments could decline in a post-affirmative action world, Clegg said, but that is not "as bad as continuing to discriminate against other groups on the basis of skin color and what country their ancestors came from." Clegg said those concerned about these issues should imagine if medical schools today announced that they were discriminating on the basis of religion because Jewish students are over-represented compared to other students. "How does that argument sound?" he asked.

 

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