Incomplete lessons in equality

In an article called “In higher education, lessons in equality,” the Washington Post reports that at two local public universities, Towson and George Mason, the graduation gap between minority and non-minority students has disappeared. This is noteworthy because elsewhere the gap is large. It is 19 points at the University of Michigan, 22 points at the University of Wisconsin, and 24 points of the University of Colorado. Top private colleges also have small but measurable gaps (the Post cites Harvard and Dartmouth). And nationally, the graduation rate for minority students is less than 50 percent.
The most effective way to end the graduation gap is to admit a minority student body that is as qualified for the college in question as its majority counterpart — that is, admit students based on merit alone, without regard to race or ethnicity. Indeed, this is almost certainly the only way to substantially eliminate the gap at top state universities like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Colorado.
The Post hints at this reality, noting that Towson focuses on admitting minority students who earn good grades at good public schools. But the Post never mentions the impact of race-based admissions on graduation rates. Yet, logic tells us that as long as universities lower their admissions standards for minority applicants, the graduation gap will persist. Analysis I have seen of the California university system tends to confirm this rather obvious reality.
The problem can be mitigated at a given college by giving greater weight to grades than to test scores – in other words, insisting that minority applicants have grade point averages comparable to white applicants and granting most of the preferential treatment when it comes to SAT scores. This strategy works because grades seem to be a much better predictor of likelihood of graduation than board scores.
But this approach is unlikely to work across an entire state school system. In Texas, under George W. Bush, the flagship state university began admitting students who were in the top 10 percent of their class. This approach was a boon for students who got good grades at schools where the population was predominantly minority. And it may explain why the University of Texas apparently isn’t up there with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Colorado on the graduation gap list.
But the University of Texas’ approach will dry up the supply of minority students with good grades for state colleges further down the food chain. Thus, whatever college is Texas’ equivalent of Towson University will probably be unable to accomplish what Towson has done with repect to graduation rates.
It’s great to see attention being paid to minority graduation rates. Now if we could only pay attention to the rather large gorilla in the room that is contributing so substantially to the graduation gap.


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