The Importance of Critical Mass

June 7, 2006

Some selective institutions go to great lengths to recruit talented minority students and to make sure they graduate, but less attention is paid to how well they do en route to crossing the stage.

According to a report published by the Institute for the Study of Social Change, at the University of California at Berkeley, black, Hispanic, and Native American students are even more underrepresented among high-achieving students in college than they are among the college population generally.

The underrepresented students are then, in turn, likely to be even more underrepresented in graduate programs and in the upper echelons of the professional world. One way to help break the cycle of underrepresentation might be to manufacture a program where well prepared minority students are overrepresented, according to the study.

The 1999-2000 National Postsecondary Aid Study reported that, in a national sample of college students, 17 percent of white and 14 percent of Asian students had grade point averages in college of 3.5 or higher, while only 10 percent of Hispanics, 8 percent of Native Americans, and 7 percent of black students did.

In their 1998 book, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, William Bowen and Derek Bok found that, in a sample of students from 28 selective institutions, white bachelor’s recipients had an average GPA of 3.15, compared to 2.61 for black students.

Even when black students had similar SAT scores and high school grades to white or Asian students, their undergraduate GPAs were lower. In other words, the traditional academic measures “over-predicted” how well the black students would do. There is precious little solid research on why highly intelligent black students often do poorly, compared to their white counterparts, at selective colleges, but the report authors found one program that seems to remedy the situation.

The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland--Baltimore County, which provides full scholarships and significant advising to high achieving science, engineering and math students, takes students at the top and makes sure they stay there. The program is now open to all students who meet certain criteria, but historically was for black students and the analysis for the Berkeley study was based on the period when the program was for black students.

Unlike many programs that promote minority success, students in the the Meyerhoff program is are continually evaluated. Students going through the program have been documented as having higher GPAs than a number of peer groups, including white and Asian students with similar academic backgrounds, and black students who turned down the Meyerhoff program to go elsewhere.

One unique reason Meyerhoff might work, according to lead report author, L. Scott Miller, who has worked on minority achievement for decades, including as the executive director of the Consortium for High Academic Performance at Berkeley, is that the program establishes a critical mass of high achieving black students that overwhelms cultural stereotypes.

Some research has indicated that negative stereotypes, like the idea that black students simply aren’t capable of high intellectual achievement, may become a self-fulfilling prophecy for students who worry about them.

In the Meyerhoff program, top black students, often for the first time, are surrounded by other top black students, and are encouraged to form study groups. “If that stereotype threat is real,” Miller said, “having a critical mass of well prepared students simply breaks the stereotype.”

Whether Meyerhoff can be recreated at many institutions, Miller said, remains to be seen for many reasons, not the least of which is that the pool of high flying black students is small enough that selective institutions vying for them often prevents the establishment of a critical mass.

And, of course, Miller said, “good strategies are not likely to be cheap.”

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