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What Comes after Race-Conscious Admissions?
Clifton Roscoe weighs in on affirmative action
Racial preferences in college admissions may be on the way out, but Clifton Roscoe is back! When the Supreme Court hands down its decision on the recent Harvard and University of North Carolina cases, affirmative action may change dramatically. I think that’s a very good thing, but it doesn’t mean we no longer have to think about race and education. As Clifton makes clear in this piece, the real problem has always been the lagging academic achievement of black K-12 students. Fixing that issue is much more difficult than adjusting college admissions standards in order to create “diverse” cohorts. That strategy may not any longer be feasible, and we’ll have to take a harder look at how African American students are learning at a younger age.
Here Clifton offers his characteristic blend of hard data and stark realism. Facing the problems he outlines head-on may require a wholesale shift in our country’s way of thinking about how we measure success. It may be a painful process, but it’s a necessary one.
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This week’s arguments in the Harvard and University of North Carolina Supreme Court cases have made it clear that racial preferences in college admissions aren’t long for this world. The public favors racial diversity, but only if it's achieved in a way that's fair to everybody. In order to achieve that goal, we first have to build a robust pipeline of highly qualified black college applicants. That won't be easy. A 2006 paper by Derek Neal of the University of Chicago showed that the black-white skill convergence stalled out during the late 1980s. Here's the abstract from Neal's paper:
All data sources indicate that black-white skill gaps diminished over most of the 20th century, but black-white skill gaps as measured by test scores among youth and educational attainment among young adults have remained constant or increased in absolute value since the late 1980s. I examine the potential importance of discrimination against skilled black workers, changes in black family structures, changes in black household incomes, black-white differences in parenting norms, and education policy as factors that may contribute to the recent stability of black-white skill gaps. Absent changes in public policy or the economy that facilitate investment in black children, best case scenarios suggest that even approximate black-white skill parity is not possible before 2050, and equally plausible scenarios imply that the black-white skill gap will remain quite significant throughout the 21st century.
A look at NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) trends supports Neal's conclusion and shows how little progress has been made in K-12 over the past 30 years. What was a 32-point gap in math scores between black and white 4th graders in 1992 was a 29-point gap in 2022:
What was a 32 point gap in 4th grade reading scores in 1992 was a 28 point gap in 2022:
Ten points is the equivalent of about a year's worth of learning, so these results suggest that black 4th graders have been about three years behind their white peers in math and reading for the past three decades. That roughly corresponds to Derek Neal's finding that the black-white skill convergence stalled out in the late 1980s.
A look at the scores for 8th graders shows a similar pattern. What was a 33-point gap in math for 8th graders in 1992 was a 32-point gap in 2022:
The gap in reading scores for 8th graders closed a bit. What was a 30-point gap in 1992 was a 25-point gap in 2022:
That said, these results suggest that black 8th graders have been two to three years behind their white peers in reading and math for three decades.
These racial gaps persist through high school. College readiness assessments from ACT show a large gap for the Class of 2022. Here's a summary of the percentages of high school seniors who met all four college readiness benchmarks (e.g., English, Math, Reading, Science):
All students: 22%
Black students: 5%
White students: 29%
Hispanic/Latino students: 11%
Asian students: 51%
These figures came from Table 3.3 of ACT's 2022 National Profile Report. Some people question the validity of these assessments, but a look at college completion rates confirm their predictive power. Here's a graphic and an excerpt from the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics):
The 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2010 was highest for Asian students (74 percent), followed by White students (64 percent), students of Two or more races (60 percent), Hispanic students (54 percent), Pacific Islander students (51 percent), Black students (40 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native students (39 percent).
The 1990 Student Right to Know Act requires degree-granting postsecondary institutions to report the percentage of students who complete their program within 150 percent of the normal time for completion (e.g., within 6 years for students seeking a bachelor’s degree). Students who transfer without completing a degree are counted as noncompleters in the calculation of these rates regardless of whether they complete a degree at another institution. The 6-year graduation rate (150 percent graduation rate) in 2016 was 60 percent for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2010. In comparison, 41 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates seeking a bachelor’s degree received them within 4 years and 56 percent received them within 5 years.
NOTE: Data are for 4-year degree-granting postsecondary institutions participating in Title IV federal financial aid programs. Graduation rates refer to students receiving bachelor’s degrees from their initial institutions of attendance only. The total includes data for persons whose race/ethnicity was not reported. Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Winter 2016–17, Graduation Rates component. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 326.10.
The data reveal a less-than-robust pipeline of highly competitive black college applicants. Colleges and universities have used race when making admissions decisions to partly offset this problem. They've also turned to black immigrants to reach their diversity goals. That seems to be especially true for America's most selective colleges and universities. Robert Cherry made this point in a RealClearEducation column from last month. As he says, affirmative action at these schools is “no longer justified as compensation for slavery and institutional racism, but solely for its potential impact on diversity.” At the same time, “the most selective schools stopped reporting on the ethnicity of their black student population.”
This is not a new issue. I'm not critical of black immigrants, but the rationale for using race when making college admissions decisions was to create more opportunities for native born American blacks, not black immigrants.
Black Americans won't achieve equality with their peers until the pipeline of highly competitive black college applicants is filled. Papering over the problem using the college admissions process is no longer feasible, legally or politically. The Supreme Court seems to be poised to abolish this practice, and polling suggests that a majority of the public agrees with them.
Here are two graphics from a Pew Research analysis that show a majority of Americans oppose the use of race as a factor when making college admissions decisions:
The analysis from Pew shows that a majority of blacks oppose the use of race in college admissions decisions. A new Washington Post-Schar School poll says 47% of blacks oppose the use of race in college admissions decisions. It also says that over 60% of whites, Latinos, and Asians feel the same way.
Why have colleges and universities taken a position that runs so contrary to public opinion? They've apparently convinced themselves that racial diversity is important and necessary in the pursuit of their missions, but it's not clear what their missions are or why racial diversity is more important than other forms of diversity.
This week’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court were revealing. An attorney defending the use of race in making admissions decisions struggled to answer questions from Justice Thomas about the definition of diversity and how it enhances the education of students.
A YouGov poll asked respondents how they felt about 10 types of campus diversity:
1. Economic diversity
2. Ability diversity
3. Racial diversity
4. Social class diversity
5. Geographic diversity
6. Gender diversity
7. Age diversity
8. Sexual orientation diversity
9. Religious diversity
10. Political viewpoint diversity
There wasn't much support for using any of them when making admissions decisions. Here's an excerpt:
Should colleges and universities consider any types of diversity in admissions decisions? For nearly all of the 10 diversity considerations polled, majorities of Americans responded that they should not be considered by colleges and universities when admitting students. Only about one-third of Americans want economic (34%), ability (32%), or racial (31%) diversity to be considered. Racial diversity is the type most likely to be backed by Democrats (53%), followed by economic diversity (51%) and ability diversity (48%). Majorities of Republicans reject each of the options presented, with the closest margin for ability diversity (23% say yes, 59% say no).
It will be almost impossible for colleges, universities, employers, and most of our institutions to reach their racial diversity goals without lowering standards for black applicants until more black K-12 students are competitive with their peers. Not many people are willing to say this out loud, but the data speak for themselves. We should have a robust debate about this issue and the tradeoffs associated with tilting the playing field to help those who are underrepresented in our institutions.
There's an old expression that says a kick in the pants can be a step forward. What some think will be an adverse decision from the Supreme Court may prompt a more explicit conversation about these issues and a much needed focus on addressing the root causes of the problem.