By Stephan Thernstrom
How are Hispanic, Black and American Indian students doing in college? The American Council on Education, which bills itself as "the major coordinating body for all of the nation's higher education," has just released its 24th annual report on the subject, titled Minorities in Higher Education. It provides valuable information, but the interpretations of the data do as much to obscure as to illuminate the central issues.
The fifty pages of tables provided in an appendix reveal that these students, designated as "underrepresented minorities," made enormous progress in our colleges and universities in the 80's and 90's, and that these advances have continued in the past decade. For example, total white enrollments in institutions of higher education rose by just 12 percent over the decade 1997-2007. The figure for African Americans was 49 percent, by contrast, and for Hispanics 67 percent. When we distinguish undergraduates from students in graduate or professional schools, the picture looks the same, with minority numbers rising much more rapidly than white rates of gain, though of course from a much smaller base. The same is true when the measure is degrees earned at various levels from Associates to Ph.D.'s.--with some exceptions we will consider later.
Unfortunately, though, few readers are likely to examine the data for themselves, and most will content themselves with reading the Executive Summary, or perhaps just a news report. If so, their understanding will be limited. The authors of the report are reluctant to be bearers of too much good news. They plainly do not want to induce complacency, because they want us to believe that institutions must do much more to provide "greater access" to higher education for these groups. At the same time, though, they are much too optimistic about what colleges and universities can do to overcome the huge racial gap in achievement because they are unwilling to acknowledge that it appears long before students have even begun to contemplate college.
The report employs two strategies for obscuring the gains so clearly demonstrated in the statistical appendix. First is the "yes, but look at how much males are lagging behind females" gambit. When one of their measures shows progress for a minority group, the report is quick to qualify the point by noting that the gains have been concentrated in the female segment of the group. Women are doing better, they concede, but males are doing worse. We still have much work to be done to attain equity, they believe. Apparently we need not just racial balance, but gender balance within each racial group.
As everyone knows, though, a skewed sex ratio in college enrollments is not at all peculiar to racial minorities. For much of our history, college men outnumbered women by a large margin. But over the past few decades, women have caught up and then moved steadily ahead. Among all students enrolled in an institution of higher education in 2007, just 43 percent were male, 57 percent female. Among whites, males made up 44 percent of the total, and among Asians 46 percent. For Latinos it was 41 percent, for blacks just 35 percent. The growing imbalance in the sex ratio of college students is not a problem confined to minorities, if it is indeed a problem.
The report provides no recommendations about what might be done about this pattern. The higher education establishment today is eager to engineer greater "gender equity," but its views of equity are curiously one-sided. It is exclusively concerned about increasing the numbers of women in every area in which they are "underrepresented," not in correcting the opposite gender imbalance in overall enrollments. Thus the crusade to end the continued dominance of males in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (two thirds of the bachelor's degrees in STEM fields still go to men. Perhaps the shrinking male presence in higher education indicates that our colleges and universities have become less welcoming places for males. Should there be attempts to change campus culture somehow to make it more male-friendly? Should men perhaps receive admissions preferences to foster greater gender diversity? This is the favored remedy for "underrepresented" racial minorities, after all, and males are certainly becoming more underrepresented with each passing year. The report is attentive to gender differences when it comes to minority populations, but fails to examine the broader context and to consider possible remedies.
The report's second strategy for minimizing minority progress is the "yes, but look at how big the racial gap still is." A characteristic passage in this vein is the following:
The number of master's degrees in all selected fields that were awarded to minorities grew substantially during the decade and more than doubled in two fields: business/management and health professions. Whites saw lower rates of growth in all selected fields, and a decline in engineering. Nonetheless, the number of master's degrees awarded to whites far outnumbered those earned by minorities in every selected field."Nonetheless"? Minorities have been catching up rapidly, but are still "outnumbered." Well, yes. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that whites are still a substantial majority of the population of the United States, and of higher education enrollments as well.
Even controlling for differences in group size, though, whites are certainly overrepresented on the highest rungs of the educational ladder, and in the most selective institutions, and Asian Americans even more so. But why? Do these "gaps" establish that non-Asian minorities are being denied the "access" they deserve because of continuing white (and Asian) "privilege"? The authors of the report appear to believe so, but there is a very large elephant in the room that they manage to ignore. Students who can benefit from higher education are those who have developed cognitive skills to do adequate work at the college or graduate level. It is stunning that this fact-studded 125-page report contains not a single word about the level of academic skills members of various minority groups have at the time they apply to college.
Any serious analysis of how various racial groups are moving ahead in the educational system must look at how well prepared they are to advance to the next level. The assumption of the ACE report is that minority groups should have made even more gains in higher education than they did over the past decade, but the authors never ask whether minority students currently leave secondary school with stronger skills than they had a decade ago. The answer is apparent in a quick glance at the evidence provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the College Board. It shows plainly that racial gaps in cognitive skills at the end of high school today have not been narrowing in recent years. Indeed, the black-white gap in mean SAT scores, for example, has increased by 14 points, and the white-Latino gap by 7 points. Similarly, the most recent NAEP Trend study found that the black-white difference in reading scores at age 17 was as wide in 2008 as it had been in 1996, and in math it had shrunk by only an insignificant one point. For Hispanics, the gap in math was identical in both years, and the reading gap narrowed by a very modest 4 points, from 30 to 26.
These differences are immense. They mean that black students aged 17 do not read with any greater facility than whites who are four years younger and still in junior high. And Latino high school seniors have reading scores that exceed those of white eighth-graders by a mere three points. Exactly the same glaring gaps appear in NAEP's tests of basic mathematics skills. If we put a randomly-selected group of 100 eighth-graders and another of 100 twelfth-graders in a typical college, would we expect the first group to perform as well as the second?
The report completely ignores what is known about the deficiencies in the academic preparation of Black and Latino students before they enter college,. Even more startling, perhaps, is that not a word about remedial education appears. Colleges today, except for the most selective ones, typically seek to determine which of their entering students lack the elementary skills necessary to do college-level work, and require poor performers to take remedial classes. Recent studies have shown that an amazing 41 percent of all first-time freshman enrolled in college have such severe academic deficiencies that they must take one or more remedial courses. For blacks it is 62 percent, Hispanics 63 percent, as compared with 36 percent for whites and 38 percent for Asians. Furthermore, remedial efforts often fail, and it has been demonstrated that Black and Latino students are much less likely than whites and Asians to overcome their deficiencies and go on to pass a regular course on the subject.
This information is surely pertinent to the report's discussion of college achievement as measured by the proportion of the group that had either obtained an associate's degree or was still enrolled in school three years after entry. Of those beginning college in 2003, 89 percent of Asian-Americans and 83 percent of whites in four-year institutions had persisted, but only 76 percent of Hispanics and 73 percent of Blacks. Given the group differences in the rate of taking remedial courses, these disparities seem unsurprising. It is hard to imagine that they could become much narrower until the performance of minority students in secondary school is markedly better than it is now.
A useful measure that could have and should have been employed in this study but was not is performance on the standardized tests used in admissions to graduate programs leading to careers in college teaching, law, medicine and business. These would provide some indication of whether minority students with four years of college under their belts have been able to eliminate or at least significantly narrow the racial gap. Had the authors examined the results of recent Graduate Records Examinations, Law School Admissions Tests, Medical College Admissions Tests, and Graduate Management Admissions Tests, they would have discovered gaps as large or larger than those found by NAEP and the College Board for high school students, with no significant narrowing at all in recent years. It is a depressing fact, but a fact nonetheless, that if the level of your cognitive development at age 17 or so is comparatively low, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to catch up over four years of college. It doubtless happens in individual cases, but not for most members of any racial or ethnic category.
The information on this report also points to the significance of another racial gap which the authors choose not to explore. On some of the measures used in the study, whites lag behind Asian-Americans by about as much as Blacks and Latinos are behind whites. If our institutions of higher education have a duty to equalize Black and Latino achievement with that of whites, why not set their goals higher still? Why not figure out how to bring whites up to the level of Asian-Americans, and make this loftier level the aim for African-Americans and Hispanics as well? The answer is obvious. Had the authors contemplated this problem, they would inevitably have had to probe the differences in family values, family structure, and family socioeconomic status that explain Asian educational success. And that would have required them to consider how much these variables shape the performance of black and Latino students as well,
Even with strong racial preferences in admissions to graduate programs, blacks and Latinos are likely to be severely underrepresented on the higher rungs of the educational ladder until the education they receive in the K-12 years improves dramatically. Unfortunately, No Child Left Behind has done little on this front. We urgently need more radical reform of our schools, and more experimentation about what works and what doesn't.
Stephan Thernstrom is Winthrop Research Professor of History, Harvard University