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How Not to Attract Minorities to STEM

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

One spring day some decades ago, while I was serving as a very junior faculty member at what was then called a predominantly Negro college, a student asked me for advice. I mention him because of an eye-opening new book I’ve just read that throws light on an important issue in science education: why students from underrepresented minority groups are less likely to pursue science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) degrees than other students.

The book is called Mismatch, and it's by University of California, Los Angeles, law professor Richard H. Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor Jr. My long-ago student, whom I'll call Terry Fide, ranked among the very top seniors at one of the very best of the Southern colleges established after the Civil War to educate exclusively African Americans. For more than a century, resources had been distributed unequally among the races, so the college’s facilities, its academic standards, and the academic preparation of its students could not match those of selective white colleges.

[A]mong the top twenty-one college producers of future blacks with science doctorates, seventeen were HBCUs and none were Ivies.

—Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.

Prestigious white institutions were just beginning to recruit talented blacks. Because of Terry’s excellent grades and record of campus leadership, one of the country’s most famous universities had admitted him to its graduate school with an ample fellowship. Campus officials, including his ecstatic major professor, were pressing him to accept. But the prospect of going there, Terry told me, scared him stiff.

Smart, hard-working, and ambitious, Terry had emerged from the segregated schools of his Southern hometown to become not only the first of his family to attend college, but also the first to even finish high school. He knew that in academic preparation and cultural sophistication—not to mention in Graduate Record Exam scores—he lagged far behind the much more privileged classmates he’d have to compete with at the world-famous institution.

Richard H. Sander

Richard H. Sander

Credit: Fiona Harrison

A less renowned, but still very respectable, school had also made him an attractive offer. At that institution, a recent graduate of Terry's college was already holding her own as a graduate student in the very department that had accepted him. She assured Terry that he could do the same. No one he trusted could vouch for his chances at the super-elite university.

Terry turned to me, I suspect, because I came from a highly ranked graduate school, not to mention a much more privileged background. He thought I should have a realistic idea of what he’d be up against.

At the famous institution, I surmised, the deficiencies in his preparation would surely place him at a severe, and possibly insurmountable, disadvantage. His fear and self-doubt would make things worse. The other school would be a stretch, but it would be a smaller stretch, and Terry's ability, drive, and confidence in his prospects there gave him a fighting chance, I thought. That's what I told him.

Close to despair, he asked me: How could he "let down" his professor and alma mater?

After some thought, I asked him what the point was of his going to graduate school. Was it to burnish his professor’s and college’s pride or to get the degree that would start him on the career he wanted? Would it better advance his prospects to drop out of a world-famous graduate school or to finish a well-regarded degree at a somewhat less prestigious one?

“That’s what I thought,” Terry said.

Perverse preferences

Terry had intuited the conclusions of Sander and Taylor's new book decades before they did the extensive research that informs it. Subtitled How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, the book argues that policies that increase selective universities’ minority enrollments by admitting applicants with test scores and other credentials well below the average of the admitted class “systematically put minority students in academic environments where they feel overwhelmed” and, inevitably, struggle. This, the authors add, especially harms these students’ chances of pursuing STEM degrees.

“Professors at any school tend to teach to the middle (or to somewhat above the middle) of the class,” the authors continue. The data they marshal persuasively demonstrate that the larger the mismatch between the academic credentials of the mismatched students and the rest of their class, the graver is the danger that they will receive poor grades, lose confidence and self-esteem, drop hard courses, leave college without a degree, and learn far less than they would have if placed among more closely matched peers. Devoutly wishing to enhance minority students’ access to academic and career success, and disdaining universities’ self-serving desire to assemble racially diverse student bodies at the expense of young people already shortchanged by inferior K–12 schools, Sander and Taylor show that large minority admissions preferences are hypocritical and a severe disservice to many able students.

Since that distant spring when Terry was among the first minority students to receive a large admissions preference at a prestigious white university, giving such preferences to African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and some other minorities (but not Asians) has become widespread and entrenched. “By 1980, more than three-quarters of the black students, and a majority of the Hispanic students at selective colleges and professional schools were there … because they had received a preference,” Sander and Taylor write.

The vast majority of students who are admitted with large racial preferences are talented people who are well equipped to succeed in higher education, they continue (italics in original). They cite research that conclusively shows that, at institutions from community colleges to world-class universities, able and motivated students of all races can and do thrive academically when they enter with credentials that generally match those of the admitted class.

A policy of racial preference, however, sets up many unsuspecting students for failure and disappointment, depriving them of degrees and careers they would have attained had they attended colleges that suited them better, and depriving the nation of more STEM-trained minority professionals.

Discouraging STEM

The effect of mismatch turns out to especially damage minority students’ chances of earning STEM degrees. “As seniors in high school, blacks were somewhat more likely than whites to report an interest in majoring in” STEM—45% to 41% respectively, the book states, citing research on students at Ivy League colleges by psychologists Rogers Elliott and A. C. Strenta of Dartmouth College. These once-aspiring minority scientists, however, “were only slightly more than half as likely as whites to finish college with a STEM degree.”

Stuart Taylor Jr.

Stuart Taylor Jr.

CREDIT: Richard Bloom

Why such high attrition? Wherever a college stands in the academic pecking order, STEM courses are always among its most demanding. “[R]elative academic weakness, not absolute weakness” explains why STEM students who enter college “with comparatively low credentials and an interest in the sciences tend to stream for the exits—and into less challenging courses—after their freshman year,” Sander and Taylor continue. Furthermore, STEM curricula are sequential, so disadvantage accumulates. “A student who performs only passably in the first course of a sequence will be at a still-bigger disadvantage in the second and third courses,” they write. “A student who starts as a chemistry major and whose preparation puts her roughly in the middle of her class will probably do fine and will gain a greater sense of mastery and confidence with each passing semester. A student whose preparation puts her near the bottom of the class can easily feel progressively more lost, and the poor grades that take her to the bottom of a STEM curve add insult to injury,” they write.

On the other hand, “historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Howard, Fisk and Clark Atlanta” enroll students who are “on average significantly weaker academically than the black students at Dartmouth and the other Ivies,” the book states. Yet, because their students do not suffer mismatch, “these schools were producing large numbers of STEM graduates.” Many of these alumni go on to success in graduate school, though probably not mainly at the most prestigious ones. “[A]mong the top twenty-one college producers of future blacks with science doctorates, seventeen were HBCUs and none were Ivies.”

Across the academic spectrum, “over half of the STEM degrees went to students whose [SAT math] scores put them in the top third of their class; those in the bottom third earned about one-sixth of the degrees,” Sander and Taylor continue. They write that research by psychologists Frederick Smyth and John McArdle, who were both then at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, shows that, stunningly, “had all the black and Hispanic students in their sample enrolled at schools where their credentials were close to the class-wide averages, 45 percent more of the women minorities and 35 percent more of the men minorities would have completed STEM degrees.”

Encouraging success

That Terry had worse preparation than others admitted to that super-elite university was no reflection on him. His poorly educated family had encouraged, but could not assist, his studies. He had excelled at elementary and high schools that provided resources and opportunities far below those that more privileged students enjoyed. This disparity still exists today, as Sander and Taylor document in detail.

Colleges make the claim—clearly refuted by the book’s ample evidence—that giving racial admissions preferences enhances minority students’ opportunities for academic and career success. As Terry astutely perceived, in fact, these institutions perversely condemn to the bottom of their classes students who could succeed—many of them in STEM fields—in more favorable environments.

The argument Sanders and Taylor make is unpopular among academic administrators, and, they illustrate, it has been systematically suppressed. But the evidence that they present makes obvious that the solution to educational inequity is not to be found in continuing to mask it with racial admissions preferences that harm students.

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