Who gets to graduate?

Whether a college student earns a degree — or just a few memories and a lot of  debt — correlates very closely with family income, writes Paul Tough in  Who Gets to Graduate? in the New York Times.

Ninety percent of freshmen from top-quartile-income families will earn a degree by age 24 compared to a quarter of freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution.

Students with similar SAT scores have very different odds of making it through college. Vanessa Brewer was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin with 22 on the ACT (equivalent to a 1020 SAT score) and a 3.5 grade point average because she ranked in the top 7 percent of her high school class. She wants to major in nursing and become a nurse anesthesiologist. Students with similar grades and test scores have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating if they come from families in the top-income quartile, writes Tough. “If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.” Only 52 percent of UT-Austin students complete a degree in four years, compared to 70 percent at comparable flagship universities. Admitting students by class rank raises the percentage of first-generation-to-college Latinos, blacks and rural whites, but disadvantaged students tend to have lower test scores than the UT-Austin average. And they’re less likely to make it through. UT is trying to help high-risk students through “student success programs” that include “small classes, peer mentoring, extra tutoring help, engaged faculty advisers and community-building exercises,” writes Tough. Some students get an extra scholarship in exchange for leadership training. Telling students their anxiety is normal and won’t last can be very powerful, researchers have found. In one experiment at an elite college, first-year students read brief essays by older students.

The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. . . . Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A.

Vanessa Brewer failed a statistics test in her first month at UT. She was shaken: High school math had been easy. But she persevered, pulling out a B+ for the semester. When she struggled with chemistry, she spent six or more hours a week at the tutoring center. She earns A’s or B’s on every test. And she’s met two juniors, also black women majoring in nursing. She told Tough: “I felt like I was alone, but then I found people who said, you know, ‘I cried just like you.’ And it helped.”

Poor high school’s impact lasts

Top students at low-performing high schools earn low grades in collegeconcludes a new study. The University of Texas at Austin guarantees admission to the top 10 percent of students at every high school in the state as an alternative to race-based affirmative action.

. . .  the researchers did modeling on the performance of a female Hispanic student who enrolled at UT at the age of 18, has a mother with a high school diploma, and family income between $20,000 and $40,000. Such a student, graduating from a high-performing high school, would be predicted to earn a 3.21 grade-point average at UT. Such a student from a low-performing high school would be predicted to earn a 2.30 at UT.

That’s a huge difference. And students don’t catch up in sophomore or junior year, the study found.

Starting this fall, UT will accept students in the top 7 percent of their high school class.

The University of California guarantees admission to students in the top 4 percent of their high school class, if they’ve passed the required college-prep courses with a C or better.

 

Race-based admissions faces ‘strict scrutiny’

The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t reject the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions plan outright, as many had expected. However, justices voted 7 to 1 to send the Fisher ase back to a lower court for “strict scrutiny” of whether the plan is justified.

“A university must make a showing that its plan is narrowly tailored to achieve the only interest that this Court has approved in this context: the benefits of a student body diversity that ‘encompasses a . . . broad array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element,’ ” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

In 2003, a divided court in Grutter v. Bollinger approved a limited use of race by the University of Michigan Law School to achieve a “critical mass” of diversity, notes the Washington Post.

The University of Texas at Austin . . . admits about 75 percent of its freshmen based on their graduation rankings from Texas high schools. Since many of the state’s high schools are dominated by one race or ethnicity, this has created a diverse applicant pool.

For the remaining slots, it uses a “holistic” evaluation of applicants that includes race as one of many factors.

The case is named for Abigail Fisher, a white student who didn’t qualify for automatic admission. She argued “the attempts to boost the number of African American and Hispanic students cost her a spot in the freshman class of 2008.” She went instead to Louisiana State University (no doubt paying higher out-of-state tuition) and earned a bachelor’s degree.

Strict scrutiny just got a lot stricter, writes Kirk Kolbo, who argued against UM’s race-conscious affirmative action plan in Grutter, on Powerline.

. . . the Court’s opinion in Fisher goes into painstaking detail (more than five pages are devoted to the issue) about how the Fifth Circuit should go about applying strict scrutiny after the remand.

. . . Strict scrutiny requires both a “compelling interest” justifying the use of race as a factor in decision-making, and means of implementing that interest that are “narrowly tailored” to achieving it.

. . .  Fisher states that a university “receives no deference” on the question of whether the “means chosen . . . to attain diversity are narrowly tailored to that goal.”

. . . Perhaps the strongest point in Fisher is the statement that “[t]he reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.” (emphasis added).

It will be much harder for racial preferences to pass muster, Kolbo predicts.

Universities don’t seek socioeconomic diversity

Focused on race-based affirmative action, many public universities aren’t eager to recruit low-income students, reports the New York Times.

“It’s expensive,” said Donald E. Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University. “You have to go out and identify them, recruit them and get them to apply, and then it’s really expensive once they enroll because they need more financial aid.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule soon on race-based admissions at the University of Texas at Austin. Many think affirmative action linked to race and ethnicity will be struck down.

Polls show that while most Americans oppose racial or ethnic preferences in college admissions, they also think colleges should give extra help to the poor.

Some states have already banned affirmative action, including California, Florida, Michigan and Washington, and in each of them, the selective public universities stepped up their efforts to recruit disadvantaged students, hoping to enroll more black, Hispanic and American Indian students in the process.

Even in states that have rejected racial preferences, flagship universities “vary widely in how hard they work to identify high-achieving, disadvantaged students and prepare them for college, how heavily they weight disadvantage in admissions, and how generous they are with financial aid,” reports the Times.

More than 40 percent of University of California students qualify for Pell Grants, which go to low- and moderate-income students. That includes 34 percent at Berkeley and 36 percent at UCLA.

At the University of Michigan, also highly selective and banned from considering race, only 16 percent of undergraduates received Pell Grants.

The private sector is less committed to affirmative action in hiring, adds the Times in another story.

“Tens of thousands of qualified low-income students, 30 percent of them racial minorities” don’t apply to elite colleges, according to research by Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard’s Christopher Avery.  Colleges should recruit low-income high achievers, writes Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in a Bloomberg commentary.

In a follow-up study, Hoxby and a colleague sent college information packets to a random selection of low-income high-achievers. Students who got the information were 80 percent more likely to apply to and gain admission to a selective college than similar students who didn’t get the packet. The mailings cost $6 per student.

Diversity without racial preferences

Can Diversity Survive Without Affirmative Action?  The Supreme Court will rule soon on whether the University of Texas can use race and ethnicity in admissions, points out the New York Times‘ Room for Debate blog. If universities can’t use race, can they achieve diversity by giving preferences to low-income students, improving outreach and financial aid or ending legacy preferences?

Affirmative action for low-income students of all races is fairer than racial preferences, writes Richard Kahlenberga senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Liberals are likely to bemoan any Supreme Court decision reducing racial preferences, but such policies never had the support of the American public and a ruling along these lines could pave the way for better programs. While universities prefer race-based programs that assemble generally well-off students of all colors, the end of such programs will likely usher in a more aggressive set of policies that will, at long last, address America’s growing economic divide.

California has preserved diversity, despite a state ban on race-based affirmation action, writes Stephanie Reyes-Tuccio, who directs the Center for Educational Partnerships at the University of California at Irvine. “Outreach to disadvantaged communities equals more outreach to students of color.”

Academic merit should be the primary criteria for admission, writes Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

It is unfair and wrong to accept a black child from a prosperous college-educated family with a $200,000 income while rejecting an equally qualified white person from a poor household with a $40,000 income where the parents never attended college.

“Taking more poor students . . . arguably promotes the American Dream of equality of opportunity, but also works to support minority admissions,” Vedder writes. But they must be qualified academically.

Beyond race-based affirmative action

After oral arguments today in Fisher vs. University of Texas, many think the U.S. Supreme Court will limit, if not eliminate, universities’ ability to use race in admissions. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, argues UT has achieved diversity by admitting the top 10 percent graduates at each high school and doesn’t need to use a race-conscious policy to admit more blacks and Hispanics.

A loss for affirmative action would be good for ethnic and racial diversity in the long run, argues Thomas J. Espenshade, in Moving Beyond Affirmative Action, a New York Times commentary. Americans would have to address “the deeply entrenched disadvantages that lower-income and minority children face from the beginning of life,” writes Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton and a co-author of  No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life.

Race-based affirmative action affects only 1 percent of all black and Hispanic 18-year-olds, the students who apply to more selective colleges and universities, he writes. Eliminating the preference would cut black admissions by 60 percent and Hispanics by one-third at selective private schools. Giving preferences to low-income students wouldn’t make up the difference, “given the large numbers of working-class non-Hispanic whites and Asians in the applicant pool.”

Without affirmative action, racial diversity on selective college campuses could be preserved only by closing the racial achievement gap, Espenshade writes.

 If affirmative action is abolished, selective colleges and universities will face a stark choice. They can try to manufacture diversity by giving more weight in admissions to those factors that are sometimes close substitutes for race — for example, having overcome disadvantage in a poor urban neighborhood. Or they can take a far bolder step: putting their endowments and influence behind a comprehensive effort to close the learning gap that starts at birth.

That would be a long, hard struggle, but it would benefit many more people. “However the court decides the Fisher case, affirmative action’s days appear numbered,” Espenshade predicts. “In 2003, in the Grutter decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that she expected such preferences to disappear within 25 years — by 2028. The children who would go off to college that year are already 2 years old.”