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The Academic Equivalent of Stop and Frisk

Time to look in the mirror.

June 16, 2020
 
 

As academic leaders quite rightly call out this society’s racism and its systemic inequities, let’s take an unflinching look in the mirror.

If African American and Latinx students earned bachelor’s degrees at the same rate as non-Hispanic whites, more than a million more would have received a B.A. just in the years 2013, 2014 and 2015 -- and produced 20,000 more engineers and 30,000 teachers of color.

Despite increases in access, racial and ethnic gaps in degree attainment remain substantial. In 2019, 21 percent of Hispanics and 29 percent of African Americans ages 25 to 29 had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 45 percent of whites and 71 percent of Asians.

Over 50 years since the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, students of color remain concentrated in the college and universities that are the least selective, spend the least on instruction and student support services, have the lowest average SAT scores and first-year retention rates, and the highest student-faculty ratios.

Flagship campuses have particularly a glaring gap between the percentage of high school graduates who are black and Latinx and the composition of their entering class. A 2018 Hechinger Report study found particularly large gaps for Latinx students in California, Texas, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, and for African American students in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Kentucky

Higher ed is not immune from bias, implicit or otherwise. The racial gaps in admissions, retention and completion draw the most attention, but equally depressing is underrepresentation in computer science, engineering, mathematics and statistics, and the physical sciences.

About 14 percent of undergraduates were African American and 19 percent were Latinx in 2016, but just 4 percent of engineering degrees went to black students and 10 percent to Hispanic students.

Historically black colleges and universities enrolled just 8.5 percent of black students in 2015, but produce 27 percent of African American students with bachelor's degrees in STEM fields.

Nor are racial and ethnic disparities simply a matter of different levels of preference or precollege preparation. In instances that I am familiar with, I have seen students steered away from pursuing particular majors. In other cases -- and computer science is a well-known example -- majors have developed a student culture that discourages women and students of color, irrespective of gender, from pursuing such degrees.

If you disaggregate large gateway classes by race, ethnicity and gender, you frequently find gaps of 20, 30 or even 50 points in DFW rates. We mustn’t assume that weed-out courses are confined to STEM fields. The figures I have seen revealed similar rates in certain high-demand humanities and social sciences classes. But since DFW rates by race, ethnicity and gender by course, section and instructor are not widely known, such disparities go unrecognized and unaddressed.

This gap, I would argue, is first and foremost a product of pedagogy and course design and can be rectified through professional development of instructors and, for students, bridge programs, peer-led study groups and tutoring sessions, supplemental instruction, interventions involving mind-set and skills training, and programs like the University of Texas’s Freshman Research Initiative.

What, you might ask, is to be done?

On the admissions front, predominantly white institutions need to recruit much more aggressively outside their traditional feeder schools and do everything in their power to create robust cohorts of students of color. Ditto for majors. A more diverse faculty can certainly help but in itself is insufficient to produce a critical mass of students, unless coupled with other forms of outreach, mentoring and activities.

Campuses must also recruit many more community college transfer students, who are significantly more diverse than first-time students -- and who often prove to be stronger students than their first-time counterparts.

Colleges and universities also need to ensure that their surrounding communities are welcoming and hospitable and that they do everything they can to promote on-campus integration, including in dormitories and events. In addition, campuses must make special efforts to balance the sex ratio, which is often terribly skewed.

And, yes, institutions must openly address their history, which, in more than a few cases, involved displacing existing African American and Latinx communities to make way for their own campuses.

Let’s take to heart the proverb in Luke 4:23: “Physician, heal thyself.” There’s nothing wrong with criticizing the faults of others -- but only if we take care to address our own defects.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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