Affirmative action/racial preferences

The Information Gap on Affirmative Action

In a few short weeks, voters in Michigan will vote on the ballot measure known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI). In so doing, they will get to decide whether to eliminate affirmative action in public higher education admissions and government contracting in their state. In itself, the vote may not be cause for alarm.

What is alarming is that unless they have made the effort to take time out from their busy lives to learn about the myriad pros and cons of affirmative action and the latest research findings regarding the meaning of equality of opportunity and the benefits of a culturally diverse student body and workforce, most Michigan voters will be voting for or against affirmative action based either on their initial intuitions or on information provided by the media. Maybe even that does not seem alarming. But it should.

The decision over MCRI will have significant ramifications not only for people in Michigan, but also for people across the United States. For if it passes, there are likely to be other anti-affirmative action ballot measures placed on the ballots of states that allow such referendums. We could argue about whether it is wise for voters at large to have such authority, but that is not the point here. We are concerned by an issue that Michigan’s debate over MCRI brings up: If members of the voting public have the power to enact public policy, how are they getting the information on which they base their opinions about the issues and their subsequent voting decisions? And further, what sort of information are they getting? Our research on these issues shows that voters are not getting much substantive information on MCRI from news articles.

In the course of investigating the persistent disagreement about affirmative action after the University of Michigan Supreme Court cases, we noticed what appeared to be a disturbing trend within the print news media’s coverage of affirmative action and MCRI. It seemed to us that instead of writing about the deeper moral issues surrounding race-conscious policies like affirmative action, print news pieces focused on covering more sensational aspects related to the aftermath of the Michigan Supreme Court cases and the campaign for MCRI.

By moral issues, we mean, for example, issues having to do with the history of affirmative action in the United States, the multifaceted pros and cons of affirmative action, the impact of previous, similar initiatives in other states, and evidence from research on concepts such as diversity and merit and equality of educational opportunity. 

We realize that it is often the case that in elections, the news media tend to pay more attention to the “horse race” between candidates than to the actual issues at stake. Nevertheless, there seems to be something qualitatively different about an election focused on a public policy issue. What else is there to cover if not the issues up for debate?

Moreover, MCRI does not venture into unfamiliar territory. The initiative arises from a distinct -- and rather disgraceful -- legacy. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a ballot initiative nearly identical to MCRI. In the years since its passage, California has experienced sharp declines in the number of black and Latino students applying and admitted to state universities, a decrease in the number of contracts awarded to minority-owned businesses and minority contractors, and a significant drop in the number of enrolled minority students at prestigious state law schools. Given all we know about the great academic and social benefits of maintaining a diverse classroom and workplace -- benefits affirmed by the Supreme Court in its 2003 decision in Grutter, the passage of Proposition 209 has been a defeat for all Californians. Now that we have evidence of the effects of passing these so-called Civil Rights Initiatives to abolish affirmative action, shouldn’t such information be a clear part of the public debate?

In order to find out what sorts of information potential voters have been receiving about MCRI, we decided to conduct a systematic study of what information the print news media have provided to the public regarding MCRI and the affirmative action debate in the years since the Michigan ballot initiative campaign first was announced in 2003. We read some 280 articles -- all that we could find -- from print news media and Internet sources between June 2003 and October 2006 that mentioned MCRI. Our sources included national newspapers such as The New York Times; both partisan and nonpartisan magazines such as Time, National Review and The Nation; major local newspapers such as The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press; other local papers such as Lansing State Journal and The Grand Rapids Press; campus papers such as the University of Michigan's The Michigan Daily and Michigan State University's The State News; and Internet and education news sources (including Inside Higher Ed).

We looked for evidence that the public was receiving meaningful, substantive information. Substance comes in many forms -- we consider an article substantive if it cites any scholarly research on the costs and benefits of affirmative action or implications of affirmative action policies; provides some historical, political or philosophical context of MCRI; or explains beyond superficialities the rationales for and against affirmative action.

Using these (relatively lax) standards, we found that fewer than 13 percent of all print and online news media articles provided any substantive information. For the most part, articles about MCRI did not include any mention of the available scholarly research on the impact of diversity and the implications of anti-affirmative action measures. Nor did they provide the reader with any historical, political or philosophical context -- pro or con -- for evaluating the policy. They tended to report the day-to-day incidents in the progression of MCRI.

Some of these stories may have been exciting -- such as the extensive coverage of reports that an MCRI opponent pulled a knife on MCRI’s director, Jennifer Gratz -- but they hardly provide the reader with any meaningful information on which to base an important vote. Most articles centered on less substantive issues like the campaign to get the initiative on the ballot, whether the petitions were valid, or whether local politicians and business leaders supported the initiative. Perhaps the news media believe that they are merely being neutral on the issue.

However, as the Supreme Court decision in Grutter showed through its extensive citations of social science research, the more meaningful information that is available, the more likely people are to understand the complex and important educational benefits of diversity that are fostered by affirmative action. When the press provides information that is not substantive, this has a more negative impact on affirmative action policies.

As state ballot initiative processes become increasingly prominent in elections and public policy decisions, do voters have public opportunities to become informed about the relevant policy issues? Are higher education researchers able to bring their research findings to bear on public debates? And ultimately is deliberative democracy being served?

When individuals vote on ballot initiatives that enact public policy, they are participating in the most direct form of democracy. As such, they should have the opportunity to engage in substantial and meaningful reflection and deliberation over the issues on which they vote. This, in its truest sense, is what we call democratic deliberation. A deliberative democracy, we believe, offers the best chance at resolving persistent moral disagreements, such as those that accompany affirmative action policy. Participation in democratic deliberation requires that individuals be well informed on the policy issues that affect them. For many voters, much information they get on policy issues comes from the print news media. Of course, many people don’t read newspapers; however, readership is correlated with increased voting. Therefore, the quality of democratic deliberation depends in part on the quality of information appearing in newspapers, both the paper and online versions.

We are not attempting to vilify the news media here, for they are only partially responsible for providing the people with meaningful information on important policy debates. Higher education researchers and other stakeholders have a significant responsibility to actively bring their research and viewpoints to bear on relevant education policy issues as well. Unfortunately this is not happening in any significant way; our research shows that fewer than 7 percent of the articles in our database even referred to scholarly research at all.

So, in the case of ballot initiatives against affirmative action, what can researchers and stakeholders do to get their ideas known and understood, if they can't count on the press? This question is certainly not new, but it is becoming more significant now, as controversial issues of education policy are increasingly being decided by voters via the ballot measure process. Beyond education policy, voters this year are charged with deciding many important public policy issues, like, for instance the stem cell research measure on Missouri ballots.

Rather than write the media off, it is up to us to develop relationships with members of the press and hold them responsible for the information they provide to the public. Researchers in particular can make a concerted effort to follow education policy debates related to their research, monitor the media coverage of such issues, and when they notice a lack of substantive information, be proactive in doing what they can to communicate their research in accessible and meaningful ways, free of jargon and overly complicated theoretical explanations.

Other stakeholders, outside of education research, can participate in the public debate as well, by talking about personal experiences that would shed light. For example, faculty and administrative staff upset about the implication that all minority students are not deserving could share their experiences with talented minority students in classes and on campus or talk about the differential impact of teaching classes where all students share the same socioeconomic or racial background compared to classes with a more diverse make-up.

Actions would include contributing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces whenever relevant. In addition, researchers and other stakeholders can maintain close contact with local or university media relations offices to make sure that they learn the most effective means of communicating their ideas to the media and the larger public. The key here is that in order to foster the public deliberation over controversial political issues required by a deliberative democratic society, the news media, education researchers, and other stakeholders need to be linked in providing important information to the public regarding education policy issues up for popular vote. Researchers often have the empirical evidence that can help bring substance to policy debates and the news media have the means to publicize substantive policy information. They ought to be working together to see that relevant ideas -- ideas that are based in research and at least somewhat transcend partisan political bickering -- get to the voting public.

Author/s: 
Michele S. Moses and Lauren P. Saenz
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Michele S. Moses is associate professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Embracing Race: Why We Need Race-Conscious Education Polic (Teachers College Press). Lauren P. Saenz is a doctoral student in educational foundations, policy, and practice at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Time for a New Strategy

Tuesday’s election results offered much for liberals like me to celebrate, but balloting in Michigan was a reminder that proponents of racial and economic justice in higher education need a new strategy.

On election day, an anti-affirmative action initiative passed easily in Michigan, just as similar ballot initiatives prevailed in California in 1996 and the state of Washington in 1998. Taken together with Florida -- where Gov. Jeb Bush preempted a threatened ballot initiative with a 1999 executive order banning racial preferences -- the Michigan result means that four states, with nearly one quarter of the U.S. population, have now banned preferential affirmative action for minorities and women in public universities and state government. Ward Connerly, the conservative black businessman who has backed each of these efforts, is now considering taking his cause to additional states, including Colorado, Illinois, Oregon and Missouri.

Supporters of affirmative action had a lot going for them in Michigan. Virtually the entire state establishment opposed the ban on preferences, including businesses, labor unions, civil rights groups, religious organizations, the higher education community, and both Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates. These groups helped supporters of affirmative action outspend opponents by a three to one ratio.

But virtually unified support for affirmative action among major organized groups did not translate into popular support. The elite strategy worked well in the U.S. Supreme Court three years earlier when the University of Michigan’s defense of the constitutionality of affirmative action prevailed. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the swing vote in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action in the university’s law school, cited amicus briefs from the military and business communities as especially persuasive. And O’Connor chose to defer to higher education in its contention that no race-neutral alternatives were sufficient to produce racial diversity. But Michigan voters were not similarly persuaded and, with Tuesday’s balloting, effectively repudiated O’Connor’s position on affirmative action at the University of Michigan.

Nor did a shift in wording of the ballot initiative help supporters of affirmative action. The initiatives in California and Washington, drawing heavily on the wording of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banned discrimination or preferences without using the phrase "affirmative action." Some were understandably concerned that voters were confused in those earlier initiatives because they did not realize they were banning affirmative preferences on behalf of disadvantaged minority groups. But adding the phrase "affirmative action" didn’t appear to help much. On Tuesday, Michigan passed the initiative by 58 to 42 percent -- a 16 point margin that in a presidential election would be considered a landslide.

Some portion of initiative supporters may well have been voting to keep minorities "in their place." But as a whole, Michigan voters could hardly be written off as right-wing, racist and sexist yahoos. The same electorate that easily passed the ban on preferential affirmative action re-elected Gov. Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats and women, by comfortable margins. A study released in the days before the election by the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity -- finding that applicants to the University of Michigan in 2005 with an SAT score of 1240 and a GPA of 3.2 had a 10 percent chance of admissions if they were white or Asian but a 90 percent chance if they were black -- undoubtedly moved some voters.

Given the results in Michigan, it is hard to see how affirmative can prevail in future initiative battles. Despite broad, bipartisan support for affirmative action among elites, a substantial financial advantage, favorable ballot language, and a political climate congenial to Democrats, affirmative action still took a beating at the polls. Faced with these realities of public opinion, what should those concerned about racial and economic justice in higher education do?

Next Steps

To begin with, higher education must rediscover its commitment to the American Dream. The public supports higher education because it sees colleges and universities as a key to social mobility. The public wants to reward students who work hard, especially those who overcome obstacles to succeed. The language -- and practice -- of college and university admissions ignores this fundamental truth. Instead of speaking about deeply held values -- equal opportunity, the chance to improve one’s position through hard work -- the higher education establishment has rallied around a different concept: "Diversity." On Wednesday, the University of Michigan’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, began a speech to the university community saying, "Diversity matters at Michigan, today more than any day in our history." She concluded, "Let’s stand together to say: We are Michigan and we are diversity." In between, she invoked diversity 19 other times.

Diversity is surely an important and positive value in education and in other areas of life. But diversity is a result, which tells you nothing per se about whether the process of admissions was fair. The diversity argument for affirmative action was favored by the moderately conservative Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell, in the 1978 Bakke case that initially established the precedent that it was legitimate for colleges to use race as a factor in admissions. The great liberal giants on the court, like Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, were far more concerned about racial justice. Relying on a university’s right to assemble a diverse class, rather than society’s need for justice and fairness, saps the civil rights movement of its greatest strength: its moral authority.

Restoring the central place of the American Dream offers up some new possibilities. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek conducted some interesting polling that found that Americans opposed racial preferences by about 2 to 1, but they supported preferences based on income by about the same margin. Even conservatives -- from George Allen to Newt Gingrich to Ward Connerly -- say they support affirmative action based on class. Progressives may well want to call their bluff. Arguing that admissions officers should provide affirmative action to low-income and working class kids of all races who work hard and do fairly well comports well with the public’s understanding of the American Dream.

Yet most American colleges and universities do not practice class-based affirmative action, their rhetoric notwithstanding. In a study published by the Century Foundation in 2004, the researchers Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose found that affirmative action triples the representation of black and Latino students at the nation’s most selective 146 colleges and universities, but there is essentially no boost given to low income and working class students. Princeton University’s former president, William Bowen, came to the same conclusion in his study of a smaller group of elite universities.

As a result, low-income students are effectively shut out of selective campuses. Carnevale and Rose found that at the selective 146 colleges and universities they studied, 74 percent of students come from the richest economic quartile and just 3 percent from the poorest. It’s hard to reconcile the 25:1 ratio of rich to poor as consistent with the American Dream. And economically disadvantaged students aren’t absent because they are incapable of succeeding. Carnevale and Rose found that you could boost the representation of the bottom socioeconomic half from 10 percent to 38 percent, through admissions preferences based on socioeconomic status and that these students would graduate at rates equivalent to those currently attending selective colleges.

Importantly, many of those smart, hard working kids who overcome obstacles and deserve to be admitted are students of color. Carnevale and Rose found that class-based affirmative action would boost the combined representation of black and Latino students from the 4 percent who would be admitted based strictly on grades and test scores to 10 percent. This is somewhat below the current 12 percent representation that is now achieved with race-sensitive admissions at the 146 selective colleges.

But if additional factors of economic disadvantage not considered by Carnevale and Rose were added into the admissions calculus -- such as having a small or negative net worth, or growing up in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty -- the racial dividend from socioeconomic affirmative action would be even greater. At UCLA Law School, which used a class-based affirmative action program that considered wealth among other factors, African Americans were 16 times as likely to be admitted under the socioeconomic program as through the normal race and class-blind admissions process.

Part of the resistance to class-based affirmative action is that its colorblind approach is seen as suggesting that racism is no longer a problem, a thing of the past. But in fact, class-based programs incorporate not only the legacy of past discrimination but also the reality of current day discrimination. Take the wealth measure, for example. Black median net worth is just 12 percent of white net worth, a gap far greater than the income divide between races. To some significant degree, the wealth gap reflects both the legacy of past discrimination and continuing discrimination in the housing market. Houses in African American neighborhoods appreciate slower than in white neighborhoods because of housing discrimination.

The American public is not opposed to taking affirmative steps to help students who have faced disadvantages. Efforts to promote the American Dream -- by giving a leg up to disadvantaged students of all races -- will win far broader public support than race-specific efforts that are justified on the basis of diversity per se. How many defeats like the one in Michigan are required before progressives wake up to this reality?

Author/s: 
Richard D. Kahlenberg
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action (1996) and editor of America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education (2004).

After the Vote, Moving On

The passage of the anti-affirmative action ballot Proposition 2 hit hard in Michigan for those who care about access to college or campus diversity. A Detroit teacher related to me what an African-American high school student told him about the results of the ballot measure’s passage. The academically talented student picked up a basketball and said that he had better start to practice, as sports were the only opportunity left for kids like him. The student was making a joke, but the point of the story remains – for the next generation of students, Proposition 2 will shape their hopes about college, their sense of who they can be. Though the measure may not keep students like the one above from being admitted to a top school, it could well keep him from applying, or even aspiring to attend a top school.

In the wake of attacks on affirmative action, students may believe that they cannot attend college, when most colleges and universities offer tremendous access to a wide range of students. Colleges and universities will need to make sure that students have the correct information about college standards and admission requirements. Students need to understand that standardized tests are only part of the system, and that students with a wide range of test scores can be successful in postsecondary education.

Colleges and universities need to reach out to students to bring a message of hope -- a college education is not out of reach, and that our colleges and universities remain committed to educating a diverse student population. Colleges and universities, if they work together, could use the assault on affirmative action as an opportunity to work together to better engage with the K-12 community. This work is difficult, long-term, labor intensive, frustrating and counter-cultural. Universities have traditionally had a “build it and they will come philosophy,” in which they build buildings, print application forms and expect a class of students to show up.

Higher education’s focus must change from admissions policies to outreach, with greater attention to college preparation. Programs such as Upward Bound and Gear Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) provide models for what can be done, but these need to be strengthened, energized, and made central to the mission of colleges and universities. Nothing in Proposition 2 prevents universities from targeting schools districts across the state that are not now sending their students to college, and working with those schools to improve their curriculums and their college-going rates. The schools that need this help range from urban districts like Detroit, Flint and Lansing, to many small struggling rural districts, to districts with large populations of Native Americans, Arab-Americans or Latinos, groups of students who have been ignored in the debate over Proposition 2.

In California, Proposition 209 led to a drastic decline in minority enrollments in the flagship University of California institutions, but it has energized the California State University System, which has become the leader in school outreach, in college preparation and awareness, and in minority student enrollments. The passage of Proposition 209 has made both the University of California and Cal State system far more interested and involved in high school curriculum, and both systems have become far more explicit with students and high schools about the knowledge and skills that are prerequisites to college success.

Regional universities, long the second tier of the hierarchy, may now become the most important part of the system for diversity. The reality is that affirmative action in admissions is a far less important issue once you leave state flagships like the University of Michigan. Minority students who do not get in there because of this change would be welcomed, admitted, and successful at institutions all over the state. This shift would bring these regional universities the “critical mass” of diversity that the University of Michigan argued was so important for campus climate, and revitalize regional universities' mission of providing access to underrepresented students.

If universities want a more diverse student body, business as usual will not work anymore. Universities and colleges need to take a role in building, encouraging, locating and recruiting their future students, starting now. The passage of Proposition 2 presents a moral challenge to colleges and universities to leave the ivory tower and to work for a better future for the students that need it most.

If colleges and universities are going to do this kind of work, engagement with the K-12 system needs to go to the top of the university’s agenda. Most of the programs at colleges and universities that work with schools and schoolchildren can be found in some of the most marginal spaces imaginable, including leaky basements, off-campus sites, and in other cities entirely. They are found in virtually every unit except Academic Affairs, and are rarely run by faculty members. These valuable programs, long neglected by their institutions, need recognition, energy, clout and involvement from the top.

For faculty, substantial involvement in elementary and high schools has never had the rewards of research, even for faculty in education schools. If universities and colleges were to revitalize this role, it would take a cultural shift, in which faculty would be expected to engage with their colleagues in the K-12 system, as well as students on a regular basis.

The passage of Proposition 2 in Michigan provided higher education across the nation with a very bad night. It showed that no matter what level of corporate and higher education support exists for affirmative action programs, voters can overwhelmingly reject this based on a few attack ads.

It is now the morning after that bad night. Time to get to work.

Author/s: 
Russell Olwell
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Russell Olwell is associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University.

Moving Beyond Affirmative Action

Voters in Michigan in November approved a proposal to ban affirmative action in the admissions process at state universities. Similar bans have previously won approval in California and Washington State. Various student groups opposed to the ban have filed suit; critics of affirmative action are looking to mount challenges in other states. Affirmative action has always been a politically sensitive issue but it is not the only issue in achieving equality in higher education.  As the legal challenges to the Michigan ban work their way through the courts and spread to other states, now is a good time to address another sensitive, and maybe even more important issue: equality in college performance.

Most colleges provide the public with very little information about racial and ethnic differences in students’ grades and graduation rates. Nor do they provide much information about the effectiveness of their diversity programs. So what should prospective minority students and their parents expect after being accepted? Unfortunately, the answer is that race and ethnicity are important predictors of college performance. Recent research confirms that white and Asian students not only enjoy pre-college advantages in family income and school quality, but on average, they also benefit throughout their college experience in ways that black and Latino students do not.

For example, in the 2001 Duke University entering class, freshman grades were on average lower among blacks and Latinos than they were for whites and Asian Americans. Black-white differences narrowed, but remained significant, even among students with similar family structures, social class backgrounds, middle and high school characteristics, and SAT scores.

Why do these racial and ethnic disparities continue? One explanation is stereotype threat; when race or ethnicity is emphasized in academic situations, minority academic performance declines. The core argument is that minority students underperform because they are trying so hard to avoid confirming pernicious stereotypes. However, when excellence is emphasized, the stereotype threat is deactivated and racial and ethnic performance differences fade or disappear. (An excellent "Frontline" interview with Claude Steele explores this issue.)

In addition, there is also evidence that racial and ethnic disparities in college success are due to differences in students’ social and information networks. From parents, peers, staff, and faculty, students get a range of information, such as which courses to take, and the best path to a desired career. They also learn behaviors, such as how to balance social and academic demands on their time. Students who have families with a long history of college attendance are more likely to have access to information about college, and to relevant role models. Due to historical racial disparities, differences in access to these social and information resources tend to correlate with race and ethnicity.

Although these findings may be surprising to many people, they are not news to many in higher education. We have long known that we cannot simply admit diverse cohorts and expect that there will be no group differences in college performance. For decades, colleges have conducted a range of programs designed to increase comfort, skills, and connections among minority students, and to make campuses more receptive to traditionally underrepresented groups.

At Colgate University, Breaking Bread requires members of disparate student groups to plan, prepare, and eat a meal together. By the end of the meal, the groups must have identified a collaborative campus event. Last year, the College Republicans and the Rainbow Alliance combined to bring Andrew Sullivan, a conservative gay-rights advocate, to campus. A strength of Breaking Bread is that it uses everyday activities -- preparing and eating a meal, as an opportunity to build bridges between groups that tend to have very little to do with one another.

Another noteworthy program is the Summer Institute for Diversity and Unity at Hamilton College, where faculty members spend three days off campus engaged in discussion groups about diversity. Participants use the experience to create new course syllabi, or to revise syllabi for existing courses. Over the past three summers, nearly 20 percent of the full-time faculty at Hamilton have participated in the program. This initiative promises a substantial impact on the campus climate because diversity discussions now appear throughout the curriculum, not just in a few courses.

However, these innovative and successful diversity programs are the exception rather than the rule. One reason that colleges don’t provide more information on their diversity programs may be that the programs are not properly evaluated. Far too many programs persist today because key administrators merely believe they work or are reluctant to ask hard questions about politically sensitive programs. This is troubling because the minority students of today are substantially more diverse than minority students in the 1980s. Without rigorous assessment, we cannot know if programs designed 20 years ago are effective for today’s students, or that the programs designed today will be effective for the students of the future.

It is imperative that colleges and universities scrutinize their diversity goals, programs, and outcomes. As with affirmative action, such examination is sure to produce a number of uncomfortable confrontations. Nevertheless, colleges and universities have a responsibility to take on this challenge. The parents who trust us with their children, and the students who trust us with their futures, deserve nothing less.

Author/s: 
David R. Harris
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

David Harris is vice provost for the social sciences at Cornell University. He, along with a team from Cornell and Colgate Universities and Hamilton, Hobart and William Smith, and Wells Colleges co-authored "Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in College Completion and Achievement," which was commissioned by the Teagle Foundation. A podcast of Teagle Foundation President W. Robert Connor, president of the foundation, interviewing Professor Harris about the report is available here.

Better Than Expected, Worse Than It Seems

There was a national sigh of relief on campuses in June when an altered U.S. Supreme Court left standing the historic 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision supporting affirmation action in admissions. There had been widespread fear among civil rights advocates that a more conservative Supreme Court would seriously undermine or even reverse the 5-4 Grutter decision with its author, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, no longer on the Court. The voluntary school integration decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education was, indeed, a serious reversal for desegregation in K-12 schools but while divided on the constitutionality of the school plans at issue in the cases, all nine justices agreed that the decision had no impact on the Grutter precedent. The rights of colleges to use race in admissions decisions for student body diversity had survived scrutiny by the most conservative Supreme Court in more than 70 years. Since the Supreme Court rarely takes such cases, the Grutter precedent might last for a while. While a bullet was dodged, optimism should be restrained. The dike protecting affirmative action has held but the river that brings diverse groups of students to colleges may be drying up as a result of the latest decision.

Colleges and universities, especially selective institutions, tend to draw their successful minority applicants from interracial schools and their admissions offices know well that many of the segregated minority high schools fail to prepare their students well enough to succeed in college. Research by the Civil Rights Project has shown that too many segregated urban high schools are "dropout factories" where the main product is dropouts and successful preparation for college is rare. Conservative economist Eric Hanushek found that the damage was worst for the relatively high achieving black students, the very students likely to comprise the college eligible pool. So making segregation worse cuts the number of well prepared students. In addition to academic preparation, students from segregated backgrounds are also often not ready to function socially on a largely white, affluent campus. It also means of course, that the most segregated group of students in American schools, whites, also have less preparation to deal successfully with diversity. So colleges may have won, but also lost.

Even before the new decision, segregation had been on the rise for almost two decades in American public schools, partially as a result of three decisions by the Supreme Court limiting desegregation in the 1990s ( Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, Freeman v. Pitts and Missouri v. Jenkins). Because this new decision struck down the most common methods of creating integrated schools in districts without court orders to desegregate, it will likely precipitate further increases in segregation. Since 1980 the tools most commonly used to create integrated schools combine parental choice of schools with magnet programs and racial diversity guidelines. Now the limitations that prevented transfers and magnet choices that increased segregation are gone and districts have to decide whether to do something more complex and multidimensional or abandon their integration efforts. It remains to be seen what will happen in various districts, of course, but the experience of other districts that have ended the consideration of race as a criteria in their student assignment policies suggests that race-neutral methods will lead to resegregation and growing inequality.

Research thus suggests that there are two significant implications for higher education to consider. First, rising segregation is likely to bring a rise in educational inequality and less prepared black and Latino students. Second, all incoming students are likely to have fewer interracial experiences prior to attending college meaning they will be less prepared for effective functioning in an interracial setting.

The Seattle and Louisville cases produced an outpouring of summaries of a half century of research by a number of groups of scholars. A subsequent review of the briefs by the non-partisan National Academy of Education confirms the central premise of Brown v. Board of Education that racially isolated minority schools offer students an inferior education, which is likely to harm their future life opportunities, such as graduation from high school and success in college. Racially isolated minority schools are often unequal to schools with higher percentages of white students in terms of tangible resources, such as qualified, experienced teachers and college preparatory curriculum, and intangible resources including low teacher turnover and more middle-class peers -- all of which are associated with positive higher educational outcomes.

Although colleges and universities differ in their criteria and process for admissions, common elements to their admissions decisions for students include 1) whether a student has or will graduate from high school, 2) standardized test scores, and 3) number of advanced and Advanced Placement courses. Research consistently finds that minority students graduate at significantly lower rates in racially isolated minority schools; in fact, minority isolation is a significant predictor of low graduation rates, even when holding constant the effects of other school performance indicators. Academic achievement scores of students are also lower in segregated minority schools, and this effect can cumulate over time for students who spend multiple years attending segregated schools. Finally, many predominantly minority schools do not offer as extensive advanced curricular opportunities and levels of academic competition as do majority white or white and Asian schools.

In addition to offering different opportunities for academic preparation, research has also found that integrated schools offer minority students important connections to competitive higher education and information about these options. There are strong ties between successful high schools and selective colleges. Minority students who graduate from integrated schools are more likely to have access to the social and professional networks normally available to middle class white students. For example, a study of Latino students who excelled at elite higher educational institutions found that most students had attended desegregated schools -- and gained academic confidence as well as critical knowledge about what they need to do to accomplish their aspirations (e.g., which courses to take from other, college-going students).

White students also lose if schools resegregate. Desegregation advocates assert that public school desegregation is powerful and essential because desegregated schools better prepare future citizens for a multiracial society. A critical component of this preparation is gaining the skills to work with people of diverse backgrounds. Segregated schools in segregated neighborhoods leave white as well and nonwhite students ill-prepared for what they will encounter in colleges and university classes or in their dorms.

Over 50 years ago, Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport suggested that one of the essential conditions to reducing prejudice was that people needed to be in contact with one another, particularly under appropriate conditions. Research in racially integrated schools confirms that, by allowing for students of different races and ethnicities to be in contact with one another, students can develop improved cross-racial understanding and experience a reduction of racial prejudice and bias. Importantly, research suggests that other interventions such as studying about other groups are not as effective or as long-lasting as actually being in contact with students of other racial/ethnic backgrounds.

Research on graduates of racially integrated elementary and secondary schools has also found that students who graduated from these settings felt their integrated schooling experiences had better prepared them for college, including being more interested in attending integrated higher education institutions. The Civil Rights Project has surveyed high school juniors in a number of major school systems around the country and students in more diverse schools report feeling more comfortable living and working with others of different backgrounds than did their peers in segregated high schools.

As schools become more segregated, it will become more incumbent on colleges and universities to intensify their outreach and retention programs to improve access for all students, and to consider the extra burdens borne by the victims of segregation who have done nothing to deserve unequal opportunities. In particular, it will be critically important for colleges and universities to continue to use race in their outreach and retention programs. As colleges and universities that have sought to defend affirmative action policies have long understood and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recently wrote, “The enduring hope is that race should not matter, the reality is that too often it does.” Further, the need to help students understand how to productively live with others from diverse backgrounds will fall to higher education. As other institutions retreat from mirroring the racial diversity of our country, this may increasingly become a responsibility universities must shoulder.

Our incoming students already have more limited interracial experiences than the last generation of students, a trend that is likely to only get worse. We hope that many school districts will continue to value integration and seek more comprehensive policies under the new guidelines set forth in Justice Kennedy's controlling opinion, but it is very likely that segregation will worsen. We believe that university faculty and researchers who may have expertise to assist local school districts find legal and workable solutions to maintain diversity should offer support at this critical time. Universities can also take a public leadership and education role in continuing to argue for the importance of integrated educational settings. These actions could help limit some of the ill effects of the resegregation of local schools and help keep alive the legacy of Brown in a period of judicial retreat.

Author/s: 
Gary Orfield, Erica Frankenberg and Liliana M. Garces
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Gary Orfield is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Erica Frankenberg and Liliana M. Garces are doctoral candidates at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and research assistants at the Civil Rights Project. Orfield and Frankenberg are co-editors of a recently published book, Lessons in Integration: Realizing the Promise of the Racial Diversity in American Schools (University of Virginia Press). Garces, formerly a civil rights lawyer, served as counsel of record in the 553 Social Scientists brief submitted in support of the desegregation plans in the Seattle and Louisville cases.

Making a Case for Diversity in STEM Fields

When we were in college some 40 years ago, neither of us ever had an African-American or Latino professor. Unfortunately, even today many students at major American research universities have the same experience. Departments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- the STEM fields -- are typically the least diverse. Not only is that situation dismaying for those of us who lived through the civil rights movement, but it is also a big policy problem for our country.

At a time when STEM fields are increasingly important to our national security, health, and competitiveness we are neither supporting the research nor producing the diverse pool of scientists and engineers we need to fuel our future.

Programs to broaden the pool of STEM students are being scrutinized, and some have been eliminated. Beyond the obvious logic of numbers -- the more people in a field, the more likely it is that talented practitioners will appear -- research suggests that a diversity of perspectives enriches science and makes engineering more responsive to a global pool of clients. For example, Anthony Lising Antonio, et al. reported on a study of college-student discussion groups in an August 2004 issue of Psychological Science. According to the research, students working in a more diverse group setting were influenced by the different perspectives of minority participants and demonstrated enhanced complex thought processes as a result.

This is especially relevant in the STEM fields, where students are often required to work collaboratively and where thinking about a problem in new and different ways is central to developing solutions. In a friend-of-the-court brief pertaining to the Supreme Court cases on affirmative action at the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, DuPont, IBM, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering submitted an argument documenting that "the importance of diversity is heightened in the fields of science and engineering."

As an engine of our economy, the STEM disciplines and the diversity of that workforce should give us great pause. Although only 5 percent of American workers were employed in STEM occupations as of 2006, their impact on the national and global economies is disproportionately large.

In both academe and the workforce, those fields look the least like America, with much smaller proportions of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. Although the overall student population has become more diverse, at the undergraduate level members of these minority groups are underrepresented among all STEM majors, with women underrepresented in many STEM fields. At the graduate level, there is an additional problem: a declining percentage of U.S. citizens. In many departments of physics, computer science, and engineering, it is difficult to find a graduate student who is a U.S. citizen. Across the STEM fields, the situation for faculty members is even more dire.

To achieve better representation in our colleges' STEM departments, we must deal with three issues.

First, we must clearly articulate the educational case for diversity, showing how students and society benefit from it. After that, we can determine how best to reach diversity: What policies should be altered, what practices endorsed, what structural changes made, and what resources committed? In biomedical research, for instance, we must not assume that whites and males are typical of all patients and develop treatments only for them; when scientists who are not white males are present, that assumption is more likely to be challenged.

Second, we need to think more holistically about diversity in STEM, including the need for everyone on our campuses -- undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty and staff members -- to be exposed to diverse ideas and worldviews. For example, in the high-tech industry, the composition of work teams now mirrors the consumer market for company products. No such practices pervade STEM units on campus, although research in many areas ultimately impacts consumers, and many students and faculty will someday operate in the private sector. To reach this goal, we may need to re-examine functions like admissions, financial aid, and faculty recruitment and advancement. What are the criteria by which decisions are made in each case? By reassigning accountability for those functions to a central office, promising and creative practices can be shared throughout the institution, with rewards for STEM units that are diversifying. A campus-wide repository of data, as well as college-specific tools, for monitoring and managing levels of diversity, is essential. Innovative examples can be found in many universities -- Harvard University on faculty searches, the University of California at Berkeley on undergraduate support, Georgia Tech on promotion and tenure -- which honor excellence while seeking to diversify participation in STEM education and careers.

Third, we must acknowledge that stereotypes still matter, and that they affect perceptions of quality and expectations for performance -- regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Studies show that humans use irrelevant external cues and group attributes in our judgments of people -- noting, for example, the race or ethnicity of a doctor before evaluating the extent of her medical knowledge. Assuming that diversity on a campus is just the result of affirmative action or special pleading reveals a different kind of bias. The Supreme Court has ruled that although colleges can consider race/ethnicity as one factor in developing policies such considerations may not carry undue weight relative to other aspects of individual qualifications. Opponents of affirmative-action programs can always claim that their emphasis on group characteristics -- race and sex -- override the required focus on individual characteristics. It seems illogical to operate special programs for the numerical majority -- women and members of minority groups. But special programs remain a valuable source of “intelligence” in guiding the transition to institution-wide approaches. Only leaders, including presidents and trustees, can begin institutional transformation in support of diversity. Though such broad change needs to start at the top, it must also be embraced and carried out at all levels.

So-called race-neutral programs -- created in response to new laws that undercut the use of affirmative action or consider socio-economic status as a proxy for race and ethnicity -- are increasingly advocated by the federal government. But they cannot be the only policy tool used to right that moral wrong. Instead, we must move toward strategies to transform an entire institution -- to serve the needs of all students and faculty members, regardless of discipline, not just those with certain characteristics. Even those who decry affirmative action should applaud an institution-wide approach that gives students what they need to succeed. Yet, this is not the same as providing “equal” treatment.

Judicial retreat on diversity in primary and secondary education is making it more difficult to diversify institutions of higher education. For example, in spring 2007 the Supreme Court struck down voluntary local strategies to desegregate schools in Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky. The rulings asserted that American society is color blind and the playing field is level -- assertions that are both naïve and self-deceptive.

Americans born with the “right” sex, race, or social class still receive advantages at birth. And residence patterns can compound those advantages, as some public schools have the money to buy new technology and hire seasoned educators while others do not. Data from the College Board show that SAT scores are closely linked with zip codes. In the words of Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “At virtually every level, education in America tends to perpetuate rather than compensate for existing inequalities.” She notes, “It takes about five generations for the advantages and disadvantages of family background to die out in the United States.”

Meanwhile, the fact remains that the United States is already importing talent and outsourcing technical jobs. Although that may make sense for our society in the short run, it is risky policy in the long run. Sooner or later, a white male science, engineering, or medical-school graduate will sue his alma mater -- not because he was denied admission to a special program, but because his education in a homogeneous environment left him ill equipped to function in his chosen career. His lack of cultural competence will have impaired his contributions to the productivity of a diverse team, to satisfy a diverse client market, or to treat a diverse group of patients.

Let us not deceive ourselves. The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education may be in danger in the courts, and thus race-based affirmative action may no longer represent a viable national strategy for providing educational opportunity to all Americans. But our colleges and universities have an obligation to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to a racially and ethnically diverse group of U.S. citizens -- for our own good.

Author/s: 
Daryl E. Chubin and Shirley M. Malcom
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Daryl E. Chubin is director of the Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Shirley M. Malcom is head of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs.

The Illusion of Race-Blind Admissions

Since the passing of Proposition 209 in 1996, the University of California has faced a statewide ban on considering race or ethnicity in admissions decisions. Recently, a political science professor at the university’s Los Angeles campus charged the institution with “cheating on admissions” by quietly considering information revealed about candidates’ race in their application essays – an act he deems illegal under Proposition 209. In an 89-page document, Timothy Groseclose describes how the institution refused to provide him with 1,000 application files to test his theory that African American candidates were being granted undue favoritism in the admissions process.

The questions Professor Groseclose raised accentuate key flaws in the world’s understanding of how colleges admit students – and especially about the false belief that race can easily be removed from the process.

As my colleagues often say, admissions is more of an art than a science. In his argument, Groseclose plays up the fact that average SAT scores and high school grade-point averages differ by racial and ethnic groups. In most cases, decisions do not boil down to quotas or points systems (which were effectively outlawed by the Supreme Court in Bakke and Gratz). What he neglects is the inherent role of human judgment -- the subjective backbone of the admissions process. To my knowledge, no college or university aspires to break the law. But when the law is ambiguous – which has been a recurring theme of affirmative action court rulings over the past 30 years – it becomes easy to imagine violations where none exist.

While Groseclose claims to be a supporter of affirmative action and policies that aim to increase institutional diversity, his argument is that using information about race revealed in candidates’ essays decries UCLA as a criminal organization. Some critics of affirmative action, such as Ward Connerly (former University of California regent and author of Proposition 209, the statewide ban on affirmative action) want to eliminate all mention of race in any applications.

These critiques raise a simple question: How can we ask applicants not to make any mention of race in their application? Do we specify that students are not permitted to talk about celebrating certain holidays? Can we ask them not to discuss trips to visit family outside the United States for it may tip us off to their racial background? If someone is the head of a high school’s Black Student Union, must she leave it off her list of extracurriculars? Is it not discriminatory to state that mention of learning empanada recipes from Mom cannot be included?

And even if we enforce such restrictions, a more complex question emerges: How far must we go to avoid “illegal activity” when attempting to make the best possible decisions for all applicants? Race can appear in more than just a personal narrative. Will we then be asked to disregard students’ names? Their hometowns? Their high schools? Their parents’ alma maters? Will staff and alumni interviewers need to conduct conversations from behind a screen? With all the blacked-out lines, we will be forced to admit only what we can see – test scores and grades as opposed to artists, scholars, and engaged citizens and people whose backgrounds aren't the same as those who have enrolled in higher education for generations.

While some of these constraints may sound extreme, it is time to acknowledge that eradicating race from the admissions process is not as clear cut as some might believe. In states like California, Michigan, and others where affirmative action has been outlawed, admissions officers need some middle ground. If students reveal elements of their personal background in their essays, or if their names, high schools, or hometowns hint at a particular racial/ethnic group, that information is important – just as important as information on students’ grades and test scores. As long as these institutions have compelling race-neutral reasons for admitting the student, there are no racial preferences at play, and no violation at hand. In addition, colleges and universities should be at liberty to consider personal qualities – such as academic success in the wake of economic or social hardship – that may be associated with, but not necessarily linked to, students’ racial background.

In court rooms and living rooms across America, there is an electrified buzz about the “unfair” nature of considering race as a factor in college admissions. Despite ample research highlighting the academic and social benefits of attending a racially diverse institution made possible by affirmative action, it’s not the benefit but the fairness that is relentlessly called into question.

But here’s a little something to halt the noise: college admissions can’t always be fair. Is it fair that a student with C’s gets into an Ivy League school because his father is a trustee? How about the lacrosse player with SAT scores 300 points below the institution’s average? The daughter of a politician? The Republican at a liberal arts institution? As described by Lee Coffin , dean of admission and enrollment management at Tufts University, each of those students could be viewed as a case of “affirmative action.” So perhaps instead of reopening historical wounds, we should let admissions officers do what they do best: craft a talented and diverse class for that particular institution at that particular point in time. If social justice is what Ward Connerly was after in writing Proposition 209 and Tim Groseclose is after in trying to uphold it, removing race from college applications can only heal the runny nose that has plagued America for decades. To cure the cold, it is the deeper cause – persistent societal racism – that needs to be treated. And in an ironic twist, there has been no right answer to that problem either. But I’m not so convinced we should remove its checkbox.

Author/s: 
Julie Vultaggio
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Julie Vultaggio is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sotomayor and Our Future

Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination marks a historic occasion in America. Assuming she is confirmed, being the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court will cause enormous cultural ripple effects. Just as the aspiration to become president became more authentic for black children who witnessed Barack Obama’s election, Sotomayor’s confirmation will provide inspiration for young Latinos to dream big. But we must tread lightly.

Many try to use Obama’s election to declare the country to be in a “post-racial era” – a fact apparently confirmed by the election of a black man, proving that racism and discrimination are behind us. If we’re not careful, Sotomayor’s confirmation could be used by some as evidence that the educational system is fine and provides all with equal opportunity to attain the American dream.

The reality, of course, is more complex.

Public discourse over the meaning of Sotomayor’s nomination has in recent weeks become a convenient vehicle for some to debate affirmative action. This debate cuts two ways. While some use Sotomayor's nomination to claim we have leveled the playing field and reached a post-racial era, there is also a vocal contingent accusing her of being racist and of being too pro-affirmative action. The fervor caused by her statements about the contributions of a "wise Latina," or the troubling lack of Latino faculty members in her own education is a potent reminder of how unwilling we all are to engage in a constructive discussion about the role and significance of race and ethnicity in American society. I plan to join this debate and make the case in a future essay about the utility of affirmative action policies and practices. We must be willing to engage in real discussions about how race and ethnicity can describe us, not divide us.

The Latino population in the United States -- Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Central American and others -- is the youngest and fastest growing segment of an increasingly diverse United States. But we are still disproportionately poor and undereducated. Nowhere is the division between Latinos and other ethnic groups starker than when it comes to achievement in higher education. Research, as well as personal experience, shows that race and ethnicity do matter. In fact, paying attention to differences while working to engage and serve all Americans is the hallmark of the most effective higher education reform efforts. But while our country has witnessed a steady increase in college participation rates for Latino students, up almost 25 percent between 2000 and 2004 according to the U.S. Department of Education, completion rates for Latino students have barely changed in three decades.

That’s not due to lack of desire: A recent survey sponsored by Oppenheimer Funds Inc., "College Within Reach," shows that Hispanic Americans are strongly committed to a college education as a part of fulfilling the America dream. In fact, 61 percent of Hispanic parents agreed that Obama's rise to the presidency "proves that a good education makes anything possible." In a floundering economy, however, only a small percentage is able to save up enough to make that dream a reality.

Sotomayor, who from humble beginnings in the South Bronx went on to excel at Princeton University as an undergraduate and at Yale University’s law school, is an extraordinary striver. She will be, and should be, an inspiration for young Latinos and Latinas -- in fact, for all young people. She is exceptional and the exception. We must not allow recognition of her achievements to mask the challenges faced by Latinos across this country for whom an Ivy League education is out of reach.

Nor should she be attacked for being mindful of the range of unique experience she brings to the Supreme Court as a Latina. Society is strengthened when leadership in the White House and state houses, in corporate boardrooms and federal and state courtrooms, and on campuses and in classrooms more fully reflects and acknowledges the challenges of the least well served of our population.

The opportunity for America lies in harnessing the potential of our young Latino population and helping them – and as a result, the nation – to thrive. This is not simply an issue of good will but a matter of necessity. Today, 37 percent of the more than 40 million Latinos in this country are under 20 years of age. By 2020, Latinos will make up 22 percent of the nation’s college-age population, according to demographic estimates today. The critical question is whether Latinos will actually reach college and, once there, succeed.

We need an expanded, educated workforce to manage the jobs of the future, but America’s workforce is increasingly falling behind the pack, becoming less skilled and less competitive. According to a 2007 report, while 30 years ago the United States could claim 30 percent of the world’s population of college students, that proportion has fallen to 14 percent and is continuing to decline.

The coincidence of a Latino population boom and a projected American workforce unprepared for high-skill jobs of the future is sometimes described as a crisis and used to forecast the end of U.S. economic dominance. But that’s a skewed picture. There are many benefits to a booming U.S. Latino population comprised of ambitious, hard working individuals, simply waiting to be tapped. "Latinos have saved our country," argues Ken Gronbach, author of The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm. "They represent 14 percent of the population but 25 percent of live births. The United States is the only Western industrialized nation with a fertility rate above the 2.2 percent replacement rate." Latino growth spurs the economy, contributes to keeping the Social Security system solvent, and will help prop up the real-estate market once the economy begins to recover.

But Latinos can do more than revive markets and pay for aging baby boomers — we can produce more extraordinary teachers, scientists and judges. Those concerned with the development of America’s human capital, as well as those who advocate on behalf of underserved Latino communities nationwide, can agree on one thing: Education, and particularly higher education, is, and has always been, the most promising pathway to a brighter future.

A new report from Excelencia in Education, Leading in a Changing America: Presidential Perspectives from Hispanic-Serving Institutions, shows how some colleges and universities have found innovative ways to significantly increase the successful participation of “nontraditional” students: those who are part-time, lower-income, commuting, older and students of color. Most Hispanic students fit these categories, and they thrive with culturally relevant support and scheduling that addresses the realities of their lives.

These institutions are front runners as the country is nearing a paradigm shift in education. Many colleges and universities still don’t adequately meet the needs of a large percentage of the Latino college-age population. If Latino college degree production does not improve, the country’s projections for college degree production will not improve. Where will that leave us in 2050, when Latinos are predicted to be a fourth of the population?

Responding to this challenge requires keeping Latino academic expectations high for the newly arrived, as well as for Latinos who have been in this country for generations --and encouraging all to fully participate in American society. The significant numbers of Latinos in the armed services demonstrates their willingness to invest in this country. Imagine matching their commitment to this country with real access and support to earn a college degree.

By implementing strategies to help Latinos succeed in higher education, we ensure that our country remains competitive, that a greater segment of the U.S. population succeeds economically, and that we enhance the opportunity for this country to be strengthened by the outstanding abilities of those who will follow Sotomayor’s path. Already, it’s possible that somewhere in our country the first Latino – or Latina – President of the United States — sits in a classroom. This child’s potential will be fully realized when education affords him or her the best chance of achieving all that he or she dreams.

Author/s: 
Sarita E. Brown
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Sarita Brown is President of Excelencia in Education, an organization that aims to accelerate Latino higher education success.

A New Manhattan Project

The seemingly endless debates about the pros and cons of race-based affirmative action point to two essential conclusions. First, without denying the relevance of moral or philosophical arguments and legal principles, it is important to confront claims with empirical evidence. This is what we do in our new book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal — a study of how students’ racial and social class backgrounds are intimately intertwined with the selective college experience. We find, for instance, that:

  • Compared to white applicants at selective private colleges and universities, black applicants receive an admission boost that is equivalent to 310 SAT points, measured on an all-other-things-equal basis. The boost for Hispanic candidates is equal on average to 130 SAT points. Asian applicants face a 140 point SAT disadvantage.
  • "Descendant" black applicants (those who are in the fourth-or-higher immigrant generation and single race — to a first approximation, the descendants of the American slave population) are admitted to selective colleges at significantly higher rates than "vanguard" black candidates (students who are multiracial and/or first- or second-generation immigrants). Even so, vanguards make up close to 60 percent of all black students on private college campuses and nearly 25 percent at public universities. Vanguards represent even larger shares of black applicant pools.
  • We find evidence for and against a "mismatch" hypothesis. Students who are the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action are more likely to graduate, more likely to enroll in professional or graduate schools, and more likely to have higher lifetime incomes if they attend a more selective college. However, class rank at college graduation for a given student is likely to decline as college selectivity goes up. On balance, we conclude that a higher graduation rate and the other advantages of attending a more selective institution more than outweigh the potential disadvantages of lower class rank at graduation.
  • Doing away with racial preferences for underrepresented minority students would substantially reduce the number of such students at selective colleges. No admission policy that we have examined is able to replicate underrepresented minority student shares at selective universities if affirmative action is eliminated. This includes policies that substitute class-based for race-based affirmative action.

A second and more important conclusion is that debating the relative merits of affirmative action deflects attention away from something much more fundamental — America’s racial gap in academic achievement. Fixing the achievement gap would obviate the need for affirmative action to create racially diverse campuses. This gap is observed in the pre-college academic records of applicants in our study, and it persists among first-year students. For instance, the average SAT score among entering Asian students in the sample of competitive colleges we studied is 225 points higher (on a 1600-point scale) than the average for black students. More than three-quarters of Asian students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class, in contrast to less than one-half of black students. Academic performance in college shows similar racial disparities, whether it is measured by six-year graduation rates or by class rank.

What we see at selective colleges and universities is just the tip of the iceberg. It is symptomatic of a much broader societal phenomenon. Racial gaps in academic skills and knowledge begin to develop soon after birth. They are reflected initially in children’s inventories of vocabulary words and later in tests of math and reading. By the time of kindergarten entry, black children lag about one year behind whites. Gaps continue to grow throughout the elementary and secondary school years in a pattern of cumulative advantage and disadvantage. By 12th grade, black students on average have fallen roughly four years behind whites. Hispanic students perform slightly better than blacks but not nearly at the level of white and Asian students. The likelihood of repeating a grade, lower-track placement in high school, and graduating high school are differentiated by race in the same way. Social class differences account for some of these gaps, but the gaps remain when income and other measures of socioeconomic status are held constant.

A skeptic might reasonably ask: "How much does this really matter?" For one thing, the racial academic performance gap lies at the heart of many adult forms of social and economic inequality. What starts off as a racial gap in school readiness quickly becomes an academic achievement gap, which is followed by a graduation gap, a labor-market skills gap, a wage gap, and eventually a poverty gap. The chain of cumulative causation extends well into adulthood. Racial gaps in academic accomplishment have been linked to racial differences in educational attainment, crime, health, and family structure. There is every reason to believe that these differences in adult outcomes would be reduced if a way could be found to narrow racial performance gaps among children and adolescents.

An additional reason to be concerned is that racial gaps in academic success have implications for workforce quality and the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. Poorly educated Americans face a number of growing hurdles. There are important racial and ethnic differences in the distribution of job-related skills; nearly half of all new jobs being created in the U.S. require a college degree; and the Hispanic plus non-Hispanic black share of the workforce is increasing. Added to this is the fact that global forces are putting pressure on American families with inadequate education. The end of the cold war and the integration of China, India, and the former Soviet-bloc republics into the international market-oriented, capitalist production system effectively doubled the number of workers in the global economy from about 1.5 billion in 2000 to 3 billion. Whereas unskilled U.S. workers once had to compete only with other unskilled Americans, now poorly educated Americans have to compete with unskilled, low-wage workers anywhere in the world. At the very time we need a better educated population to compete with other rapidly modernizing countries and to avoid a decline in living standards, growth in the quality of the U.S. workforce has slowed or stagnated.

The challenge facing all Americans is to identify the factors responsible for the racial academic achievement gap and close this gap as soon as possible. Time alone is an unreliable ally. Given the slow rate of convergence in black-white test outcomes over the past 30 years, it is likely to take another century to reach parity. The No Child Left Behind Act aims to eliminate the racial gap in academic achievement by the end of the 2013-14 school year, but no serious observer believes this goal will be met. Test scores have been rising for all students, but racial gaps persist. There is general agreement about the broad set of factors responsible for the achievement gap. Home environments, schools, and neighborhood conditions, among other determinants, have been implicated. But no one knows for sure how all of these factors interact or what their relative importance is. Most critically, there is no consensus on the most effective intervention strategies.

So What is to Be Done?

To address this problem, we propose in our book the equivalent of a Manhattan Project for the social and behavioral sciences — a project with the same scale, urgency, and sense of importance as the original Manhattan Project. Its aims should be twofold: (1) to identify the causes and cumulative consequences of racial gaps in academic achievement and (2) to develop concrete steps that can be taken by parents, schools, neighborhoods, and the public sector all working together to close these gaps on a nationwide scale. We should not be satisfied with demonstrated success in pilot studies on a local level.

The project we envision is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking, likely on a scale previously unimagined in social or behavioral science research. It will have to monitor the lives of a large sample of children — perhaps as many as 50,000 — who are followed from birth to roughly age eighteen, or onto the first rung of their postsecondary plans. Data generated by this project will doubtless consume the time of hundreds of graduate students, faculty, and research scientists at our leading research and teaching institutions.

All Americans stand to benefit from the knowledge and action plan derived from this project, especially individuals whose life chances will be made brighter as a result. But there are several groups that have a particular stake in its success:

Higher education. As we have shown in our simulations, if black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps are closed, affirmative action policies would no longer be needed at selective colleges and universities to preserve current shares of underrepresented minority students on campus. This issue takes on greater urgency because of the 25-year sunset provision for affirmative action suggested in Sandra Day O’Connor’s 2003 majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger and the realization that students going to college in 2028 will be born next year.

Corporate America. Achievement gaps impede diversity in the workplace, not only in entry-level positions but up and down the corporate ladder. All too often one finds a shrinking diversity pipeline as one looks at upper levels of management. Closing the achievement gap would help expand this pipeline.

U.S. taxpayers. Many of our public policies and programs are directed to combating the symptoms of the achievement gap, but this approach is both expensive and inefficient. Individuals with improved education and greater labor market success have higher earnings, pay more in taxes, and make fewer claims on public services.

Philanthropic sector. Identifying successful intervention strategies will give foundations concerned with child welfare and, especially, the education of children and adolescents a clearer idea of where to target resources.

The racial gap in academic performance plays a much more central role in problems that loom large today than almost anyone realizes. That is why we call this gap “the most pressing domestic issue facing the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” Closing the achievement gap has the potential to do more for race relations and racial equality in this country than any other initiative currently under consideration.

Author/s: 
Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Thomas J. Espenshade is professor of sociology at Princeton University. Alexandria Walton Radford is a research associate in postsecondary education with MPR Associates Inc. in Washington.

Diversity's Next Challenges

In the early 1990s, two social psychologists conducted an experiment to see whether our society’s negative racial stereotypes affect the learning experience of students in our educational institutions. They selected a group of black and white Stanford undergraduates and gave them a test made up of items from the advanced Graduate Record Examination in literature. The students had been statistically matched for ability, and since most of them were sophomores, the GRE-based test was intentionally chosen so that it would be challenging and difficult for them.

The psychologists – Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson – wanted to see if there were differences in the way students of similar academic background but from different racial groups experienced a test that is supposed to be scientific and "objective." In particular, they wanted to see whether simple cues provided in the testing environment would affect the students’ performance. The cues they provided casually were intended to refer indirectly to negative social images; their goal was to see, in short, if negative social stereotypes were mere words, or if they had the power of sticks and stones (for a basic overview, see “Thin Ice”).

What they found was startling. When the test was given to the students as an abstract test of intellectual ability (the cue from the examiner echoing social prejudices about IQ tests), the black students in the group performed less well than the white students. When, however, they presented the same test as a study of "how certain problems are generally solved," with a clear statement that the task did not measure intellectual ability in general, the black students' performance improved dramatically and now their scores matched those of the white students.

Experiments such as this one have been carefully replicated by researchers in various countries and they consistently produce the same measurable effect – not only in the case of racial stereotypes but also those concerning gender and class. The series of experiments Steele and his colleagues conducted revealed to them that all our current beliefs about bolstering self-confidence and eliminating socially produced self-doubt are much less relevant to the learning context than we think.

Instead, what the black students revealed was that they were responding to their educational environment with "social mistrust.” “When they felt trust,” says Steele, summarizing the results of this series of experiments, the students “performed well regardless of whether we had weakened their self-confidence beforehand. And when they didn’t feel trust, no amount of bolstering of self-confidence helped." He goes on to suggest that educational policy needs to recognize how "different kinds of students may require different pedagogies of improvement."

Steele says that we need to think about “fostering racial trust” if we want to improve the educational environment for vast numbers of American college students. This proposal – and the groundbreaking research on which it is based – goes to the heart of the discussion of what we may call "the future of diversity." The proposal takes us beyond our current – perfectly justified – concern with providing more students "access" to college. It forces us to think about what our campuses feel like to those who come to learn.

Social trust or mistrust are not merely attitudinal matters, to be left up to those who are affected by them, that is, the students; trust and mistrust – as we see in the case of the cues provided in the psychology experiments – are produced by our actions as teachers and administrators, and they reveal much more than our personal intentions as individuals. As many have argued in recent decades, trust is a social achievement and it takes us beyond our contractual obligations to be legally fair. Trust and mistrust are often defining characteristics of the environment in which we all live and function, and they can exist even in the absence of overt discrimination. So the real question is whether our students experience our educational institutions as being trustworthy.

Far from being content with recruiting greater numbers of socially underprivileged students, staff, and faculty, we need to see the ideal of social trust as a positive challenge to re-imagine the culture of our campuses, to envision a culture that will be more conducive to learning precisely because it is more open, democratic, and genuinely attentive to the experiences of different social groups. Diversity needs to be conceptualized not only from the perspective of access (admissions, recruitment, financial aid, etc.) but also – and equally importantly – from the perspective of the campus as a learning environment for different kinds of learners.

A forthcoming volume, The Future of Diversity: Academic Leaders Reflect on American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan) contains essays by academic leaders from a variety of American institutions on both these perspectives – access and the culture of learning. How do we broaden access to more kinds of social groups? How do we make our campuses more genuinely inclusive? How do we conceive social diversity as a valuable educational resource, rather than a problem to be managed or solved? How, finally, do we replace the mistrust many feel – and the inequality of access, opportunity, and experience it points to – with the kind of social trust on which all learning, and indeed the very ideal of democracy, depends? These are big and general questions, and the prominent academics who have contributed to this volume – university and foundation presidents, deans, leading scholars -- address them by drawing in part on their own specific experiences. They review what we have all learned from recent history – from the Supreme Court’s verdict on the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action to experiments on various campuses involving students from different cultural backgrounds – and they make concrete proposals for the future.

One of the challenges is to imagine a diverse campus as a valuable and unique learning environment, one that is in effect a social laboratory of sorts. Nancy Cantor – president of Syracuse University and former provost of the University of Michigan (during the critical period when the recent Supreme Court cases were being prepared) -- argues that university campuses have a special role to play in building the future of our multicultural and diverse society. Cantor argues that "healthy group dynamics" are critical "if we are to open up our institutions (and the power within them and conferred by them) and transcend the destructive fault lines of our society, thereby building the capacity for – and trust in – democratic culture beyond the campus." Cantor’s central point is that the campus culture needs to be organized in such a way that it respects the "delicate balance between strong group identification and vibrant inter-group exchange."

Like many psychologists, Cantor affirms the importance of group identification for the psychological well-being of those who are from socially marginalized groups, thus implicitly rejecting the popular notion that group identities are necessarily opposed to the non-parochial ethical perspective required of citizens of a democratic society. She also focuses on the importance of "normalizing" conflict, of raising – through "mutual respect and healthy interaction" – our consciousness of conflict so that we see it as a potential source of knowledge, a vitally important knowledge in a democratic society that thrives on difference (of background, of views, of life experiences).

A second issue arises when we think about the roles played by different kinds of universities, especially non-elite and regional institutions. Campuses like Rutgers-Newark or Michigan-Dearborn serve first-generation immigrant families and provide an educational experience in which socio-cultural diversity defines the learning environment, one that reflects the rich diversity of both American society in general and the increasingly globalized world in which we all live. But Steven Diner, chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, points out that while his alumni recognize the value of this environment and talk about it eloquently, the mainstream culture seems to lack the tools with which to measure its value. Daniel Little, chancellor of Michigan-Dearborn, makes this point in more general terms. While elite status and financial resources are valuable, he says, they do not guarantee a superior educational experience, for a quality education depends on a combination of factors, chief among which is the conscious planning and coordination by various levels of the campus leadership – the administration and the faculty. Diner and Little point to the crucial role played in any democratic society by regional and urban institutions in providing access and social mobility to immigrants and those from lower income groups. If the goal is to reduce social inequality through education, then regional and urban universities need to be both recognized and supported by policy makers at not just the state level but also nationally.

The scandalous truth is of course that American educational policy is weak precisely on a national level, since funding of public universities has generally been left entirely up to the states. What the recent economic downturn makes clear, however, is that American higher education, which has traditionally been the engine of the country’s economic development, has fallen behind dramatically, and that is mainly because of the erosion of federal funding and our myopic social policies about lower income groups. As the economist Paul Krugman points out in The New York Times, education and social mobility suffer because of largely invisible economic policy decisions, the net effect of which is that American higher education is no longer available to the population at large. Krugman considers this predictable result of myopic national policy to be “a large gratuitous waste of human potential,” and calls for Congress to take appropriate measures. “Education made America great,” he points out, and goes on to issue a timely and urgent warning: “neglect of education can reverse the process.”

Noting the need to address social inequality in the broader national context, Eugene Tobin [former president of Hamilton College and co-author – with William Bowen and Martin Kurzweil -- of Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (2005)] recommends that at least the top universities, private and public, consider putting a "thumb on the admission scale" by taking low-income status at least as seriously as we now take race. Research shows that students from less affluent backgrounds, once admitted, go on to do at least as well as those from more affluent ones. Broader considerations of social justice would necessitate that colleges and universities take class seriously in their definition of social diversity. Income-based preferences in admission, Tobin argues, should be seen as a necessary complement to the race-based programs that have been so successful in diversifying the major colleges and universities that have initiated such programs in recent decades.

All these attempts to imagine a more genuinely diverse academic campus have an interesting implication: academic "excellence" can be achieved only if we recognize the social conditions in which learning takes place. Our efforts to promote excellence on our campuses are closely tied to our ideals of democracy and diversity, and these efforts cannot be successful if we do not question our deeper assumptions about what success is and what produces an effective culture for the work of scholarship and teaching. For such work is not done by abstract individuals but by socially embodied beings, with socially produced strengths and vulnerabilities, and any attempt to think about the educational culture of a campus must focus on the actual experiences of faculty and students from a variety of social backgrounds. This requires a rethinking of some of our most basic theoretical assumptions as well as a reexamination of our traditional habits and practices.

One of these theoretical assumptions concerns the nature and value of what is called "objectivity." It is possible to worry that while taking the subjective experiences of students and faculty of color, for instance, into account may improve the campus culture in some respects, it compromises the objectivity of our approach as senior faculty or administrators. That worry is based on the understanding of objectivity as pure “neutrality,” and there are reasons to doubt that this conflation of objectivity with neutrality is intellectually justified. Modern philosophers often talk about the need to see objectivity as a context-sensitive value rather than the product of an abstract and a-contextual attitude of neutrality. So in contexts where unfairness is built into the environment because of half-conscious habits and practices that echo and reinforce prejudices prevalent in the social mainstream, genuine objectivity may itself be the product of a conscious effort to examine our assumptions rather than of a neutral approach – as evidenced, for instance, in "color blind" or "gender blind" policies. What seems fair and just to a member of one social group is not in fact experienced in the same way by members of a group that is, say, the target of negative social stereotypes.

One of the most revealing experiments done by Steele’s colleagues showed that what targets of negative stereotype threat respond to most favorably is a clear message that while the test is tough the evaluation will be fair – that the students’ social identities will not be a factor in the way their academic performance is judged. In thinking about the culture of a genuinely inclusive learning environment, then, the first great challenge for us may be to remind ourselves that what is needed is not so much sentimental partiality as -- ultimately -- greater objectivity. The assurance of genuine fairness can restore social trust. The future of diversity on our campuses depends on our thinking hard about restoring to education and learning the healthy environment of mutual trust and respect in which alone they can thrive. And while social forces beyond our immediate control do much to diminish this trust, the joy – indeed the magic and mystery – of learning is that it can transcend such forces. The world pervades our classrooms and our laboratories, but it does not wholly determine what can be achieved in them.

Both recent research in social psychology and the academic leaders I have been quoting suggest that there is an urgent need for all of us to coordinate our efforts to re-imagine our campuses and to work toward making them the laboratories that they can be -- of the future society we hope to build. Social diversity is about more than just numbers. Most importantly, it is not a "problem" to be solved, but rather an enormous social and educational resource that is waiting to be tapped. From admissions to sports to the designing of the curriculum and of non-curricular interactions, the practical and theoretical challenges posed by a campus’s “diversity” are the gateways to a more democratic national future.

Author/s: 
Satya P. Mohanty
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Satya P. Mohanty is professor of English at Cornell. He is director of the national Future of Minority Studies Summer Institute, funded since 2005 through grants by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Future of Diversity, which he co-edited with the philosopher Daniel Little (chancellor of the University of Michigan at Dearborn), will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2010.

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