For years, colleges have said that if you get a C in a course, you can proceed to the next level in the field. "We've said, just keep moving," Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said at a meeting of college presidents Tuesday.
But Hrabowski, whose university is known for its success in educating black scientists, said that policy makes no sense at all. Students -- minority or white -- who get a C in a science course aren't going to suddenly succeed at the next level. So his university is now telling those students to retake the course, so that they can emerge with a real grasp of the material.
Hrabowski cited that policy change as part of the approach he thinks is needed if colleges are going to recruit and graduate more minority students in science and engineering, creating the potential for those students to go on to graduate school and join the professoriate.
"We have to ask the right questions," he said. And that means challenging the assumptions of faculty members about many practices, like letting students enroll in the next course up after they get a C.
Hrabowski spoke at a meeting of the Leadership Alliance,  a group of elite research universities and colleges and universities with strong records in educating minority students. Through summer research programs, grants and other projects, the group seeks to diversify colleges and their faculties, especially in the sciences.
Those at the public portion of the meeting -- held in Washington at the National Academy of Sciences -- spoke about many issues, from presidential commitment to federal policies to the need to reform elementary and secondary schools.
But some of the comments that sparked the most interest and discussion -- like Hrabowski's -- questioned whether established practices are effective. And while many of those policies (like allowing students with C's to move on) affect all students, speakers said that these issues had the potential to have a particular impact on recruiting and graduating minority students.
Jocelyn Spragg, faculty director of diversity programs at Harvard Medical School, asked a panel of presidents whether they shared her uncertainty about "whether AP courses are harming us or helping us?" Presidents at the meeting responded with a chorus of criticism of AP courses.
Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University, said she teaches biology to freshmen and finds that those who have taken AP courses "come in thinking science is about memorization." When students are asked "to think," she said, "they become discombobulated," Tilghman said, adding that she had "grave doubts" about AP courses.
Hrabowski said that professors at his institution had noticed that students in a special scholarship program for minority students who had taken AP courses and done well (even those who earned a 5, the highest possible score) were not doing well when they were given credit for the introductory college course in that area. And then they were losing interest in science.
So the university has started to actively discourage students from using their AP courses to place out of those courses. The result: Students end up doing well in the intro courses, and then go on to succeed in the advanced courses.
Only one president at the meeting -- William R. Brody of Johns Hopkins University -- offered a defense of the AP program, and it was a pretty minimal defense at that. He said he "wasn't sure that AP is the villain" in these issues.
How students progress from introductory to advanced courses is also an issue in graduate programs, and has the potential to limit minority enrollments there, said Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania. Gutmann said, for example, that many graduate programs have a tradition of putting all the "backbreaking courses" together in the first year or two. "But that doesn't have to be the way things are done," she said.
Gutmann said that she would never tell a department to cut the rigor of a program. But she said that spreading out the most difficult courses, and providing mentors, can help students get through the same material.
She said that there isn't "active discrimination" in graduate programs, but when departments don't think about how their requirements either encourage or discourage minority students, it's easy for those students to fall through the cracks.