The Missing Black Students at Elite American Universities, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of our new colleagues, Andrew McGill, takes stock of the increased college enrollment among American Africans (who constitute 13 percent of Americans nationwide; 15 percent between the ages of 20 and 24):

Since 1994, black enrollment has doubled at institutions that primarily grant associate degrees, including community colleges. In 2013, black students accounted for 16 percent of the student body there, versus 11 percent in 1994. Universities focusing on bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees also broadly saw gains, with blacks making up 14 percent of the population, compared to 11 percent in 1994.

But at top-tier universities, black undergraduate populations average 6 percent, a statistic that has remained largely flat for 20 years.

A reader emails a critique:

McGill rightly lauds the progress we’ve made increasing black enrollment in colleges in the last three or four decades. Stopping the more obvious kinds of bias keeping students out of university and offering a hand up to try and counteract some of the damage that institutional exclusion had caused was necessary and right.

After that he loses me, though.

When we are talking about state universities and community colleges, we are talking about hundreds of expandable institutions that can add on teachers and programs to accommodate your average undergrad with virtually no ill-effects. By definition, those types of universities are supposed to be inclusive. The conversation changes a lot when we start talking about elite universities, and especially so when we are talking about elite programs within them.

When we talk about admission of black students to colleges, we aren’t talking about a system that tries to keep them out anymore. On the contrary, their admission is subsidized by diversity-seeking recruiting processes and lowered standardized testing bars that encourage students of diverse backgrounds to fill as many spots as possible. And that’s a good thing, because there isn’t really an upward limit to how many students we can put into average schools. Average is easy to expand.

When we talk about elite universities, we are talking about schools that are elite primarily because they are exclusive, because their standards of admission are high. When we say proudly that someone “got into MIT” (or CalTech, Harvard, or Yale), there’s a tacit assumption that this was difficult to do. And we need that. Our top universities—especially the graduate programs at our top research universities—are the drivers of our scientific economy. This is our country’s top-end intellectual capital. It’s how we stay ahead and healthy in terms of our scientific output. There is a huge interest in keeping those programs elite and making sure that the students that are allowed in are the highest qualified and also those who, frankly, want it the most.

Is it possible that the lack of adequate diversity in these schools and programs are due to institutional bias? Sure, but the data doesn’t generally show that. The article tacitly acknowledges this by not showing us a single data point that would suggest anything otherwise. And in the absence of this data, what he’s apparently asking universities to do is to admit less qualified, un-elite students. He’s asking us to dumb down sectors of our education system that are literally defined by being the home of our very smartest students.

This reader had the most up-voted comment on the piece:

Acknowledging that by the standards every other group is judged by for admission and academic success—like standardized test scores, graduation rates, and a challenging curriculum—black students lag, the assumed solution is to change the rules of the game. This is much more comfortable that confronting the possibility that a) black students as a group do not produce as many top-shelf students no matter what resources or accommodations are made, or b) they have been failed by some combination of their parents, communities, and elementary and secondary school educators.

Instead we have the political class and media talking about discarding aptitude tests that are in practice a solid measure of intellectual firepower and softening up the curriculum so it’s easier for ill-equipped students to get to graduation at schools they have no business being at in the first place. It shows that people pushing for more inclusion really don’t think black students can navigate the same intellectual space as every other group in the country, and this condescending paternalism is a signal that all the “solutions” put forth to lift up a troubled minority group aren’t really working very well.

This commenter pushes back:

Aptitude tests are not meaningless, but they are not a complete measure. They don’t capture tenacity, long-term memory, goal setting, and persistent but efficient effort towards those goals.

I saw this during my time in the military’s language training. Generally, if you did well on the aptitude test, you had a better chance at succeeding. But it wasn’t a perfect correlation. Some people did well on the two-hour aptitude test but could not retain the cumulative information over the 15-month course. Others could not maintain the needed level of effort and focus over that length of time. Still others had trouble with the psychological factors needed in language acquisition. These students were outperformed by the persistent students with good memory and a flexible, willing mindset.

This is why I support efforts to identify those students who are punching well above their weight. That is, they are scoring higher than you’d expect based on social factors such as poverty, poor schools, family makeup, and social status. (In some places that’s race, but in Appalachia it’s not.) If these students score within striking distance of the affluent norm, then they have overcome considerable drag in the process. It is a good bet that they will continue that persistence and do well in a selective, supportive college. We’d be wasting a great deal of potential to ignore this base of human capital.

Another reader retorts:

This is an insult to poor people everywhere. All this paternalistic pandering is just liberal arrogance—“you can't do it without my help because I am superior to you.” I was raised in greater poverty than the welfare of today but that did not prevent me from staying out of trouble, being honest, and studying just as hard as the affluent. One’s attitude and behavior is quite different when you have to earn what you get instead have it given to you.

What do you think? Drop me an email and I’ll post the strongest arguments from any side. Update from a reader:

I read all the reader responses in your note. It seems that the people who argue against any extra efforts to add diversity to the campuses believe that entrance to an elite school is purely based on merit. However, that’s not true. The schools consider many elements: legacy admissions, extracurricular activities, and significant other talents (musical, athletic, etc). I am certain that I was accepted to an Ivy based on geographical diversity. (I’m from Newfoundland, Canada.) So, it is entirely reasonable within this framework for the schools to consider financial and racial diversity.

One more reader for now:

Given the disproportionate numbers of Jewish and Asian students in elite institutions, it is simply mathematically impossible for other ethnic groups to match their population proportions.  If the same analysis applied to blacks were to be applied to the Polish, the Italians, the Germans, Appalachian whites, etc, it would be mathematically impossible for them all to hit their population percentage.

Either quotas need to be introduced (again) to keep Jews and Asians at their “rightful” level, or the disproportions need to be accepted as a natural outcome of a meritocracy where some groups outshine others … until the laggard groups somehow change their achievement levels.