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January/ February 2013 The Next Affirmative Action

Want to help minority college students? Make the entire higher education system more accountable.

By Kevin Carey

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.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.

Comments

  • Craigie on January 17, 2013 3:38 PM:

    How are you estimating default rates by race? The FAFSA does not even collect race. The longitudinal studies don't go out enough years -- you'd be getting mostly dropouts, certificate completers and some associate's degree completers, not a representative group. It would be a group, as you note, probably skewed towards for-profit colleges.

  • R.Realist on February 24, 2013 9:34 PM:

    Quote:

    "Richard Arum and Josipa Roksas blockbuster 2011 study Academically Adrift... 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."


    Why should the taxpayer subsidize their education? Will the financial aid loan be more of a burden on the taxpayer, as opposed to the food-stamps and welfare that the minorities receive? Atleast they wouldn't be thousands in debt to the state, for the useless, irresponsibly chosen degrees that they tend to gravitate towards. If minority [black] students are "learning less than whites" [in the public schools funded by the taxpayer], and if studies show that around 40% current minority college students actually graduate with a diploma (meaning the student loans+interest will never be paid back), then why should self-destructive Affirmitive Action policies even exist in this new century of endless debt?
    We should NOT be "devoting more public resources to colleges that enroll students with the greatest academic needs."

  • Jon on April 23, 2013 3:27 PM:

    "Regardless of how the Court ultimately rules, itís time to return affirmative action to its original purpose: leveling the college playing field for students who have been unjustly denied a fair chance at success"

    There the answer right there but the minorities aren't the ones at a disadvantage here its the lower classes. There are plenty of middle class minorities that have the same opprotunities as the majority (and this number is only getting bigger) Affirmative Action should go out to poor students who are actually at a disadvantage.People like this guy keep talking like there are no middle class blacks and no poor whites