Race, educational achievement, and affirmative action

According to a repot in Inside Higher Ed, the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association was focused on “new reseach designed to shift the debate” on affirmative action. The main point of this shift: repealing affirmative action, the new argument goes, is unfair not simply because it results in a drop of black and Latino enrollment at the top universities, but because this drop is not related to merit.

Robert T. Teranishi, assistant professor of higher education at New York University, said that his research was designed to counter the “blaming the victim” mentality in which he said people assume black enrollment declines suggest a lack of merit by black students.

The reality, he said, is that a new form of school segregation has taken hold in which in post-affirmative action California, the best way for a black or Latino student to get into a University of California campus is to attend a “white” high school.

Teranishi’s research focuses on California high schools and the relationship between attending high schools with certain characteristics and enrolling at a University of California campus. He started by noting that while California is famous for its ethnic and racial diversity (in statewide totals), 88 percent of high schools have a racial majority of one group. Of those schools, he said, 44.7 percent have a white majority, while 43.4 percent have a black or Latino majority. But among new University of California students, 65.3 percent come from white majority schools and only 21.7 percent come from black or Latino majority schools.

From there, Teranishi presented data showing educational inequities in the different kinds of schools, such as studies showing that the greater the proportion of black and Latino students in a high school, the fewer Advanced Placement courses that are likely to be offered.

The cumulative impact of these inequities is such that minority students who are admitted to top University of California campuses are more likely to have attended white majority schools than other schools. At Berkeley, for example, 48.9 percent of the underrepresented minority students admitted attended white majority high schools, while 33.6 percent attended high schools that were black or Latino majority and 17.5 percent attended high schools without a racial majority. At the University of California at San Diego, the percentage of new black and Latino students coming from white majority high schools is 52.6 percent.

Teranishi said that such data should shake up people who think that some pure idea of merit is at play in selecting the best students for top colleges. Is it fair to tell black and Latino students, he asked, that to have a good chance at getting into UCLA or Berkeley, “they need to attend a white school”?

Walter Allen, professor of higher education at UCLA, said that what the data suggest are that admissions systems supposedly designed to favor merit are in fact systems that “protect privilege” and end up ripping off black and Latino people generally — either as would-be students or as taxpayers. “The poor folks are subsidizing the educations of wealthy people,” he said.

A few things leap out. First, the blatantly agenda-driven nature of the research, explicitly — by the researcher’s own admission — designed to support a particular public policy goal (the defense of race-based preferences in college admissions). Second, the blatantly one-sided nature of the discussion at the conference (at least judging by Scott Jaschik’s account at Inside Higher Ed, no opposing viewpoints were presented).

And thirdly, I think the esteemed sociologists have the wrong idea about opposition to preferences. Few Americans regard “merit” as a completely innate quality that exists outside any social or cultural context, and the idea of innate racial differences in intelligence is generally quite unpopular among critics of race-based preferences. Most of those critics, such as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, have stressed the need to reform K-12 education rather than try to artificially remedy the educational achievement gap by lowering college admission standards for minorities.

Teranishi’s research (disputed by some people in the comments at Inside Higher Ed) is intriguing; but it hardly proves that the students who are being rejected by the top colleges are qualified for admission. The availability of advanced placement courses, and resources in general, is undoubtedly a factor; but there may be other reasons black and Latino students from majority white schools do better — such as a school culture more supportive of scholastic achievement.

Instead of renewing the call for crude racial-preference policies, it might be worth it to look at what those majority-white schools are doing right.

My own article on racial preferences, from 2001, can be found here.


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8 responses to “Race, educational achievement, and affirmative action

  1. Anonymous

    You have absolutely struck on something here. And that is, in the Latino (or Black) communities, academics is not a priority.
    Give these kids a break. Make them attend a Japanese/Korean/Chinese school. Let them spend a few nights a week in these ethnic homes. Let the light bulb come on in their heads.
    Guess what kids in the Asian families do at night?
    THEY STUDY!! Their parents push them to do ALL of their homework, AND MORE!!
    My kids are 50% Korean. They are very bright and at the top of their class. We have noticed the performance data by ethnic group for high schools in our area. We avoid sending our kids to the heavily latino or black schools, for one very simple reason. This environment is not conducive to high academic performance. It is a CULTURAL DIFFERENCE.

  2. colagirl

    My own experience teaching first-year undergrads at a fairly large institution–sadly, often it seemed that the minority students I had in my classes were less prepared for college-level work than their white or Asian counterparts (although not always, by any means). In terms of writing skills–spelling and punctuation, sentence and paragraph construction, and reading comprehension, they often lagged behind. They also tended to have worse attendance records, and worse records of work completion. I still remember one student–he was one of the most talkative in class, really demonstrated an engagement with the material, vitally contributed to and stimulated class discussion–but he ended up failing the class because he didn’t turn in any of the major assignments and I couldn’t grade him on work I hadn’t received.

    I’ve heard it argued that affirmative action can set such students up for failure, by getting them into universities where they can’t keep up with the work, so for example a student that might have done just fine at a Tier II university gets into a Tier I institution because of AA and ends up flunking out. Or that AA encourages students to immediately attend four-year institutions who might have benefited from a year or so at a community college to get their writing and studying skills up to snuff. I think there’s some truth to that. The impulse behind AA is a good one, but no one’s interests are served by admitting unqualified students–least of all the interests of the students themselves, who have been set up to fail instead of taught how to achieve.

  3. LtRand

    I find it amusing that the answer they never come up with is to push and reform the minority ethnic schools to perform at higher levels and to actually expect the students to do it and fail them if they don’t. Of course, that would be the white-privilage speaking, wouldn’t it?

  4. Anonymous

    it is not the schools that are failing. it is the parents, or perhaps the single mom.
    they don’t make their kids study.
    it is as simple as that.
    the asian cultures do, and that is why the kids do so well.
    it is not rocket science.

  5. ada47

    H Cathy
    SO glad you’re back!

    I’d like to see an honest assessment of whether affirmatie action works.

    My sense is that it has accomplished neither the good that its supporters claim, nor the bad that its detractors claim. But that is just my gut, and if I did everything by my gut, I guess I’d be, like, maybe, President or something. I’d like to see the numbers, though in this case it is almost certainly difficult to determine whether any gains have been caused by AA, or what the failures mean.

    Here’s an interesting observation, though perhanps an aside. I’m on the faculty at an elite university that has Division I athletics. Of course, we have to lower our academic standard somehwat to ensure that all of our team rosters get filled. This tends to enrage much of the faculty (personaly, I don’ care), while it is generally supported by more conservtive students, alums, donors and adminstrators. On the other hand, “diversity” admissions, which lower the academic standards to increase the representation of certain racialor ethnic minorities, are enthusiastically supported by the faculty and less so by the more conservative students, alums and donors.

    Well, it’s too late at night and I have too much work to do to ponder what all that means, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

  6. Cathy Young

    Thanks for the comments everyone; and ada47, good to be back. You raise a very interesting question about breaks for athletes being to conservatives/traditionalists what breaks for minorities are to liberals.

  7. Revenant

    I hadn’t thought of sports fans as a particularly “conservative” crowd. The average fan is more conservative than the average academic — but then, the average Democrat is more conservative than the average academic too.

  8. Cathy Young

    Rev, I do think that generally it’s liberals who tend criticize the prominence of athletics on college campuses (often in conjunction with a critique of “male-dominated culture”), while conservatives tend to defend it.

    However, it’s also useful to remember that the NAACP has staunchly opposed efforts to link athletic scholarships to some minimal standards of academic performance.

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