Mind the gap

Black and Hispanic college students earn significantly lower grades than their white and Asian-American classmates, according to an Education Department study. in 2003-04, 19.3 percent of whites, 12.7 percent of Hispanics and 9.6 percent of blacks earned mostly A’s; 24 percent of whites, 34.6 percent of Hispanics and 40.7 percent of blacks earned mostly C’s or lower. The performance gaps are even wider at selective colleges, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, “especially at the highest achievement levels and among students majoring in mathematics, engineering, the sciences, and technology-related fields.”

Until recently, most college leaders have been reluctant to talk about the performance gap, but some are now sharing data and looking for solutions.

Many college officials who are working to close the performance gap say the initial impetus for their efforts was the 1998 publication of William G. Bowen and Derek Bok’s The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton University Press). Based on their analyses of data from 28 selective colleges, Mr. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, and Mr. Bok, a former president of Harvard University, extensively documented race- and ethnicity-linked differences in achievement . . . They also found a strong correlation between undergraduate grades and future earnings, with black students who earn low grades suffering more, in terms of their future earnings, than white students with comparable academic records.

Skidmore College is one of the few to develop a program that helps minority students earn higher grades. Disadvantaged students with marginal SAT scores take intensive writing, intensive math and philosophy in a summer boot camp. Students are shocked that work that earned A’s in high school gets D’s in college. “It was like I had been living a lie most of my life,” a Mexican-American student says.

Vaughn Greene, a black junior who enrolled through the Higher Education Opportunity Program and has served as a head resident in the dormitories during the past two summer institutes, says many students at first fail to take the summer program seriously. After getting slammed with D’s and F’s on their first papers, however, “they realize it is time to switch gears and actually do something because these people aren’t playing.”

At Minding the Campus, Anthony Paletta marvels at college administrators’ reluctance to admit they’ve been admitting underqualified minority students.

About Joanne


  1. SuperSub says:

    There are already programs to help minority students get good grades in college – Africana Studies, Latino Studies, Feminist Studies – where the most necessary skill comes from your ability to complain.

  2. The solution is staring them in the face. All the colleges have to do is apply their principles consistently. As reported in many places, most elite colleges grant admission “points” for many factors, including race. All they need to do is extend the practice to the classrooms. Each student that is admitted with bonus points for race or other reasons would be granted bonus points in the classroom, too, enough to level his grades with the average of his classmates.

    As a bonus, this plan would practically eliminate the problem of academically ineligible student-athletes.

  3. Richard Nieporent says:


    Don’t give them any ideas!

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    I did note that the top-tier schools were having a good deal of trouble. They’re the ones most interested in diversity.

    The solution is simple. Affirmative action in grading. The lousy K-12 situation was a can that got kicked down the road by using AA to get minority kids into college. Hey. Kick the can another step. Get them out of school without this kind of trouble. The administrators’ moral self-degradation necessary for AA admittance ought to be sufficient to move along to AA graduation. Let somebody else worry about incomes.
    Most of the profs support AA in admittance. Now they can live with it directly in grading.
    Of course, with our increasingly diverse society, and the interracial kids now appearing in greater numbers, deciding whether the kid in question belongs to the proper accredited victim group will become more common.
    Well, they wanted it. Let them deal with it.

    Having said that, I will admit to having been involved in the bootcamp sort of thing at a HBCU in the Sixties. Decades later, at a reunion, we discovered that the kids who’d gone through the program did better than those who had not.
    It can work, and the switch in expectations is not the least of it.
    I got a charge out of the kid who’d been living a lie. When does he plan to have a chat with the people who lied to him?

  5. Mark Roulo says:

    Does anyone know if the “Black and Hispanic” college student grades are lower than “white and Asian-American” classmates with similar SAT scores? If not, then the only news here is that lower SAT scores predict lower college GPAs (which is worth reporting, I suppose, as there does seem to be a meme that says that SAT score predict nothing). If the GPAs are higher or lower than would be expected based on SAT scores, that would be extra interesting.

    Anyone have any idea?

    -Mark Roulo

  6. Black and Hispanic students tend to earn lower college grades than white and Asian-American students with similar high school grades and SAT scores. I think this is true for SAT scores alone. This is called “overprediction.”

    The University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s program for disadvantaged (i.e. minority) students planning to major in science and engineering is considered very successful because the program’s students do as well in college as their academic record would predict. Other colleges say it’s hard to emulate the program because it starts with well-qualified minority students; there aren’t enough to go around.

  7. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    1) I just had to point this out: a poster above used my favorite oxymoron of all-time: “student-athlete”. While I will grant that there are some athletically gifted students who do just fine in both endeavors, let’s be honest: most of those “student-athletes” that such organizations as the NCAA tend to gush over are really athletes first, second and third, with being a student maybe in the distant fourth.

    2) One day in the future, someone is going to accept the very simple fact that race is NOT a cause or factor in getting poorer grades or poorer academic performance, but culture IS. The sad fact is that there are some from various ethnicities that promote education as a virtue, while there are others from some ethnicities that frown upon or de-emphasize education.

  8. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Typical Euro-Mascul-centric raionalization for oppression.
    No society is better than any other.

  9. Society and culture are completely different animals.

  10. jjonahjameson says:

    As Joanne noted above, black/hispanic students in elite college perform worse than would be predicted by their SAT scores. This indicates the folly of AA. Mismatching students to colleges is simply a form of student abuse.

    Forget about race, why would you want any bright kid with a decent, mid-high SAT score and a B average placed in a school that’s mostly filled with near 2400 scoring/4.2 average students?

    The truth is, there are very, very few kids who are more “academically qualified” than their test scores seem to suggest. But for the most part, blindly depending completely on test scores would get you a long way towards picking the MOST academically qualified class possible (as opposed to the weasel-words “well-qualified” that elite schools use to defend all their diversity admits, from AA to athletes to “creative” types.) This is especially true for technical subjects such as math or physics, where hard effort in the elite programs will rarely substitute for lack of cognitive horsepower.

  11. Good question. Seems to me the rationale is that by surrounding them with higher-performing students, it increases their chances to excel. Anyone?

    While this model can be used with great success in low-pressure scenarios — for example, placing a few students with developing voices in a choir of excellent singers will speed the development of the sub-par vocalists — higher ed would seem to be a whole other ball game.

    Especially in high-stakes programs like medicine and law, cooperation is nil and peer sabotage rampant. Other students serve less as models for emulation or friends to assist, and more as competitors to be crushed.

  12. SuperSub says:

    The difference between races in college performance among students with similar SAT scores makes me wonder –
    Perhaps the different racial groups truly are equally educated, but along the way the two groups learned the value of effort differently.
    I’ve seen many intelligent students fail simply due to a lack of effort.
    While student-centered instruction may end up being better at educating students (especially traditional low-performing groups), does it rob them of their ability to motivate themselves to learn material when it is not candy-coated for them? Do they not value the quest for knowledge itself and instead need someone to dangle a carrot in front of them?