Monday, October 01, 2007

The New Affirmative Action

A very interesting article (also from today's NYT magazine) about affirmative action and UCLA's successful.  I wasn't aware of these statistics about the unimportance of economic disadvantage:

If you were to  ask admissions officers whether they also gave special consideration to  low-income applicants — whether they gave them credit for overcoming Johnson’s unseen forces — the officers would say that, absolutely, they did.  
In truth, however, they did not. Three years ago, William  Bowen (the former president of Princeton) and two other researchers discovered what was really going on. They persuaded 19 elite colleges — including  Harvard, Middlebury and Virginia — to let them  analyze their admissions records. The easiest way to understand the results is to imagine a group of students who each have the same SAT scores. Holding that equal, a recruited athlete was 30 percentage points more likely to be admitted than a nonathlete. A black, Latino or Native American student was 28 percentage points more likely to be admitted than a white or Asian student. A legacy received a 20-percentage-point boost over someone whose parents hadn’t attended that college. And low-income students? They received no advantage whatsoever.  A poor white kid from upstate New York would be treated no  differently from a white kid in Chappaqua. Frances Harris would get no more of a leg up than the black daughter of corporate lawyers.
Bowen says he doesn’t believe that admissions deans were lying when they said that their affirmative-action programs took social class into account. The colleges apparently put even more stock in the polish that comes with affluence — the well-edited essay, the summer trip to Guatemala, the Arabic language lessons. In any case, the poor lose.

I also wasn't aware of this -- kudos to Berkeley and UCLA!

There is almost an iron law of higher education: the more  selective a school is, the fewer low-income students it has. At Harvard and  Yale, only about 10 percent of undergraduates  receive federal Pell Grants. (Typically, students from the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution are eligible for the Pell.) Even at top public universities, the share is often 15 percent or less. The colleges that are filled with poor and middle-class students almost invariably have low graduation rates. So their graduates are more likely to end up on the wrong side of the 21st century’s educational divide. A bachelor’s degree seems out of reach to a large portion of the American population, and, as a result, other countries have closed the gap in educational attainment with the United States over the last generation.
There are really only two exceptions to the rule, two universities that are both elite and economically diverse: U.C.L.A. and Berkeley. A chart on U.S. News & World Report’s Web site does a nice job of summarizing just how unusual they are. It lists the percentage of Pell  Grant recipients at each university in the magazine’s famous Top 25 ranking.  U.C.L.A. tops the list, at 37 percent, and Berkeley comes next, at 31 percent.  In third place is Columbia, with just 15 percent.
To be fair, the main explanation for this gap is demographic happenstance. California is filled with low-income immigrant families, especially from Asia and Latin America, with high-achieving children. But a set of deliberate policies also plays an important role.

Here is what I wrote about affirmative action earlier this year (

The college affirmative action debate is a REALLY tough issue that I have mixed feelings about.   To be clear: at the end of the day, I would have voted against Prop 2 in Michigan (which passed, banning racial preferences) because I think our nation will be better off if a more representative number of blacks and Latinos attend top colleges and universities, but I think affirmative action is a LOUSY way to address the problem.
Cut through all of the pretty language and  affirmative action (as it applies to college admissions) is very simple: try to get more ethnic diversity by lowering the bar for students from under-represented ethnic groups.  And it's not lowering the bar a little  at top schools -- it's A LOT -- like a couple HUNDRED SAT points!  (These facts have slipped out here and there and if you doubt them, just talk to my  friend who used to be an admissions officer at an Ivy League  school.)
Now, with laws like Michigan's preventing  some state schools from practicing overt affirmative action, they're saying  this:
Many officials worry that they will lose  top minority candidates to selective private universities.
“We know from colleagues in Texas and California that if we can’t take  race into account, we’re at a competitive disadvantage,” said Julie Peterson, a spokeswoman for the University of Michigan, where two-thirds of the applicants are from out of state.

Forgive my political incorrectness, but  allow me to translate this: "We're upset because private universities can lower their bar more than we're allowed to."  This is really lame.
Supporters of affirmative action (like me)  would get A LOT more traction if they highlighted the REAL problem: that painfully few black and Latino children are finishing 12th grade with strong academic records, ready to tackle college.
There are, of course, many reasons for  this, but one of the big ones is that black and Latino children disproportionately go to failing schools, characterized by WAY too many lousy teachers, low standards and expectations, grade inflation and a weak curriculum.
Instead of spending their energy fighting to keep the bar low, why don't university presidents all get together and use  their influence to fight for genuine reform of public schools, especially the worst ones, which would benefit low-income minority students the most, so that more kids are better prepared for college?!  I'm sure it's happened,  but I have NEVER ONCE heard a university president speak out with any boldness  about the need to reform public schools (other thanthe usual, easy "answers"  like spend more money and reduce class size).

The New Affirmative Action
Tierney Gearon for The New York Times
September 30, 2007 <>

In another time, it wouldn’t have been too hard to guess where Frances Harris would have ended up going to college. She has managed to do very well in very difficult circumstances, and she is African-American. Her high school, in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, was shut down as an irremediable failure the spring before her freshman year, then reopened months later as a charter school. Midway through high school, her father developed heart problems and became an irritable fixture around the home. She also discovered that he was not actually her biological father. That was a man named Leroy who, when her mother took Harris to see him, simply said his name was George and waited for her to leave. In Harris’s senior year, her mother lost her job at a nursing home and the family filed for bankruptcy.

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