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Like the vast majority of its readers, I am greatly impressed by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift (University of Chicago Press, 2011), a book that summarizes the findings of their groundbreaking analysis of the efforts and expectations of a credible sample of American undergraduates. Unlike other recent works that have identified shortcomings in American higher education, their book also provides extensive confirmation of the validity of some of our best practices.

To be specific, students who are required to take more "hard courses" – courses that require extensive reading and writing assignments -- enjoy substantially greater increases in their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment than do other students. However, I have serious reservations about some of the policy inferences the authors draw from their findings that gaps in these skills between black students and white students grow larger during the first two years of undergraduate study.

  • The authors are disturbed that the gaps grow instead of shrink, a development that contradicts their expectations that undergraduate education would reduce important differences between diverse segments of the student population.
  • The authors recommend that colleges and universities adopt policies designed to close these gaps. In at least one webinar subsequent to their book’s publication, they have expressed concerns that if these gaps continue to widen, some colleges and universities might tend to recruit fewer black students because of the negative impact of their anticipated smaller gains on the overall gains on the learning metrics for those institutions.

In other words, the authors believe that if minority students don't make the same gains as majority students, we should hold colleges and universities responsible for these shortfalls. Mind you, I am not suggesting that colleges and universities should not make strenuous efforts to improve the quality of the educational experiences they provide for their minority students. Of course they should. And given the lagging of American students behind students in a growing number of other countries on various international metrics of academic performance, our institutions of higher learning should also make strenuous efforts to improve the quality of the educational experiences they provide for all of their students.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that widening gaps between the broader cognitive skills of black and white students should be expected. They are not, ipso facto, evidence of institutional deficiencies. Intellectual capital is similar to financial capital. The more you bring to the table, the greater the returns you should expect to receive -- all other things being equal.

  • Because of well-known disparities in their socioeconomic status, most black students enter college with substantial disadvantages relative to most white students, hence the initial gaps that Arum and Roksa identify.
  • Both groups then enhance their broader cognitive skills during their first two years of study. But given the initial gaps, why should anyone expect that both groups would achieve the same gains? -- all other things being equal. Indeed, if financial investors who put up more capital earned the same dollar returns as investors who invested less, one would suspect some kind of fraud.
  • To me it seems more reasonable to expect that colleges and universities provide learning environments wherein black students and white students make the same relative gains, rather than the same absolute gains. For example, suppose that the average initial CLA scores for white and black students were 1200 and 1000, respectively. After two years, if the average scores for white students rose 10 percent, i.e., from 1200 to 1320, then we would expect the scores for black students to also increase by 10 percent, i.e., from 1000 to 1100. Both groups would have made the same relative gains. Of course, the 120 point absolute gain by the white students would be greater than the 100 points gained by the black students.

However, for those who insist that black students should make the same absolute gains as white students, a workable strategy is obvious, has been around for a long time, has been adopted by other successful minority groups, and was well-understood by my grandmother. When I was 5 or 6, my father drove me down from New York City to the small Alabama town in which she lived. While this particular visit is mostly a blurry childhood memory, my grandmother said something that left an indelible mark on the deepest part of my brain:

"You are going to have to be twice as smart as the white man and work twice as hard in order to get half as far."

"O.K." That's about all I remember saying in response. As I grew older, I accepted the validity of her observations, so I tried to study harder than my white peers and competitors. For all of this time, up until I was listening to Arum and Roksa discussing their book during a recent webinar sponsored by the American Council on Education, I assumed that Grandma had been warning me that white racism would pose a substantial impediment to my achievements.

But as I listened to the authors confidently espousing their agenda, I found myself shaking my head in dissent, then flashing on what Grandma had said. It suddenly occurred to me that my wily old granny was also telling me something else: that if I wanted things to come out equal when all other things were clearly unequal, I could only level this inequality by exerting substantially greater effort. If my white peers and competitors studied 15 to 20 hours each week, I had to study 30 to 40 hours in order to master all of the stuff that was written "between the lines" -- stuff they didn't even know that they knew, stuff they had absorbed almost unconsciously from the intellectually richer environments in which they were raised.

Initial gaps in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills between black students and white students can only be narrowed if the black students recognize the wisdom of my Grandmother's advice, and then exert substantially greater efforts than their white peers, just as other high-performing minority groups have done in decades past, e.g., Jewish Americans and Asian Americans. African American students who want to achieve parity with white students must study harder than white students. But those who don't exert this extra effort must content themselves with the unequal results that come from equal efforts. And if sufficient numbers of African American students cannot be persuaded to go the extra distance, then the gaps identified by Arum and Roksa will continue to widen in years to come -- because all other things are still not equal.

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