Want to help minority college students? Make the entire higher education system more accountable.
Nationwide, the majority of all black and Latino college students fail to graduate within six years. Even those who do finish may not be getting much benefit. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s blockbuster 2011 study Academically Adrift, which found “limited or no learning” taking place among a substantial percentage of all college graduates, also found significant racial disparities, with black students learning less than their white peers. Studies of literacy among college graduates have found similar patterns. Black students are also more likely than other groups to default on student loans that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, leaving financial ruin in their wake, and minority students are targeted by for-profit colleges peddling sketchy degrees and inflated student loans. State governments, meanwhile, give far more money per student to flagship universities enrolling a disproportionately white, wealthy student body than to the regional universities and community colleges where most minority students are educated.
America’s higher education system is comprehensively failing to give minority students what they need, and this has little to do with elite college admissions. Including community colleges, fewer than one in ten undergraduates attend colleges with admissions rates below 50 percent. By definition, affirmative action only affects the small percentage of students who are qualified to attend elite schools. Many of the minority students washing out of public universities in droves are the survivors of our infamously substandard K-12 schools, attending local, open-admissions institutions. Their problem isn’t getting into college—it’s getting out with a quality degree in hand and no terrible loans on their backs.
So the end of affirmative action, absurd though it is, may be an opportunity to change the way people think about race and higher education. Affirmative action is one of a relatively small number of high-profile issues, like climate change, school vouchers, and abortion, that people form strongly held opinions about based largely on broad ideological affiliation. To be liberal is to favor admissions preferences in college; to be conservative is to oppose them. That’s a powerful dynamic, but it has also had the effect of training generations of progressives to believe that they’re doing their part to further the cause of racial justice in college by supporting affirmative action—and nothing else.
In reality, minority students need a much broader reform agenda, one that focuses on giving the colleges they attend a fair share of public resources and then holding them accountable for results. Not all colleges that enroll large numbers of black students have catastrophic graduation rates. Some, like Elizabeth City State University, a historically black public institution in North Carolina, get nearly half of their students through on time. Like many minority-serving institutions, Elizabeth City enrolls students whose academic preparation reflects the dysfunction of our K-12 schools. That’s a tough job, and a university with real academic standards shouldn’t necessarily let 100 percent of students earn a degree. But there’s a huge difference between 8 percent and 50 percent, and the things universities like ECSU do to help students graduate aren’t revolutionary: they bring new students to campus over the summer to help them acclimate, they carefully track their academic progress to look for warning signs of dropping out, and they focus hard on academics. But many unsuccessful colleges don’t do these things—or don’t do them well—because nobody outside the institution is paying attention.
States need to start practicing financial affirmative action by devoting more public resources to colleges that enroll students with the greatest academic needs. Along with the federal government, they should also penalize institutions with terrible graduation rates, student loan repayment rates, and post-graduation employment and earning rates, compared to peers with similar student populations. Those who set the national education agenda need to look past the handful of universities that graduate the ruling class and focus on improving the neglected institutions that educate future minority school teachers, scientists, doctors, and engineers. It will require the work of generations, but that’s what minority college students—blinkered jurists notwithstanding—truly need.
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