Scholars Emphasize Importance of Affirmative Action Programs

A group of university professors have released a statement through The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, arguing that the benefits of affirmative action are supported by sound research, despite the politically divisive nature of the debate over its usage.

Their goal is to both justify the usage of such diversity policies and help universities craft policies that are legally sound.

The statement makes a number of points, supported with cited studies.  It comes in the wake of the Fisher v. University of Texas U.S. Supreme Court decision, which sent the affirmative action case back to lower courts. Although it was not a decisive statement, researchers said the court did recognize that the goal of diversity in higher education is a worthy one.

“The Court also emphasized that use of race, if challenged, requires a clear judicial finding that the campus has shown that it could not find a workable and feasible non-racial strategy that would produce the desired level of diversity at tolerable administrative expense,” the statement says.

The professors first lay out the case for the benefits of diversity in a higher education setting, including reductions in prejudice and greater civic engagement. Diversity also can cutback on stereotyping, tokenism and other discrimination on campus.

The study notes that the risk for such discrimination has been highest in fields with few minorities, such as science, technology, engineering and math majors (STEM).

The researchers argue against any assertions that minority students admitted under affirmative action programs are stigmatized, and say the opposite is true. The argue against the idea that such minorities would do better academically at less elite schools. They say students who initially have low test scores may be motivated by the challenge of attending an elite university.

“The claim that minority students suffer academic harms when their admissions credentials do not “match” their institutions finds limited support in the scientific literature,” the statement says. “Research on undergraduates as well as on professional schools shows that minority students attain higher grades and have higher graduation rates when attending more selective institutions.”

The researchers argue that polices such as considering low income status rather than race and targeted recruitment of minorities are not as effective as affirmative action.

The signers of the statement include professors from Stanford University, University of Illinois, Vanderbilt University, University of Houston, and the University of Michigan.

While the statement strongly pushes affirmative action as a solution, other higher education institutions are pursuing other avenues of increasing diversity. Some universities believe that reaching out to minority students in middle and high school could increase diversity. A recent article in The New York Times described how the University of California-Irving spends more than $7 million annually on outreach. California schools have turned to such strategies since affirmative action was banned there.
“California’s public universities, and some of their counterparts around the country, have embedded themselves deeply in disadvantaged communities, working with schools, students and parents to identify promising teenagers and get more of them into college,” the article says. “It is not enough, university administrators say, to change the way they select students; they must also change the students themselves, and begin to do so long before the time arrives to fill out applications.”

Related Links:

– “The Research Basis for Affirmative Action: a Statement by Leading Researchers,” The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.

– “Justice Step Up Scrutiny of Race in College Entry,” The New York Times. 

– Fisher v. University of Texas Supreme Court decision text.

– “In California, Push for Diversity Starts Earlier,” The New York Times.

– The Civil Rights Project

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California Community Colleges Have Poor Transfer Rates for Latino, Black Students

Researchers at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a trio of studies this month showing that while community colleges are the gateway to higher education for most Latinos and blacks in California, few of those students end up transferring to four-year colleges and earning bachelor’s degrees. According to the studies, about 75 percent of Hispanic students and two-thirds of black students who pursue a higher education in California choose the community college route. Many of those students needed intense remedial courses when they entered the system. In 2010, just 20 percent of transfer students from community colleges to four-year universities were Latino or black.

“Either we make bold changes in the system or we consign the majority of our students of color to a life with few prospects and we condemn the state to a future in decline,” said project co-director Patricia Gandara, in a press release.

Looking at southern California, researchers found that low-performing segregated high schools sent students to community colleges that also largely serve poor, black and Hispanic students and from which few students transferred to four-year institutions. The community colleges with the strongest transfer rates served larger numbers of white, Asian and middle class students.

Researchers recommended that:

  • dual enrollment programs be promoted to high school students;
  • the transfer process be streamlined with a statewide articulation agreement;
  • successful colleges be recognized and rewarded;
  •  students be informed about the most successful programs;
  • and funding be increased.

The researchers also proposed that the strongest community colleges be given authority to award bachelor’s degrees.

According to the press release, among the community colleges that have been successful with minority and low-income students:

“The study finds that a core of personnel in these colleges have lived the experiences of these students and dedicated themselves to the goal of transferring them… To a great extent, these staff rely on the college’s outreach efforts to prepare the students even before they arrive on the campus.”

Community colleges are seen as playing an important role in the educational future of Latinos, given that they’re a more common entry point into higher education than universities. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis just wrote an op-ed for The Huffington Post calling community colleges the frontlines of higher education in America. She was promoting President Obama’s proposed $8 billion Community College to Career Fund, which among other things promotes job-training programs.

Solis writes:

“The first elected office I ever held was as a trustee on the Rio Hondo Community College Board in California. So I know well the value these colleges have for Latinos. In so many ways, they’re a perfect fit. Community colleges are local and flexible. They provide accelerated and translatable degree programs. And they provide training that sets people up for jobs in their community — all at very low costs.”

But by The Civil Rights Project’s assessment, these colleges will need to improve in order to live up to the high expectations. The Los Angeles Times wrote about how the Los Angeles Community College District is trying to address its problems with new programs focused on tutoring and helping students adjust to college.

Even if you don’t live in California, it’s possible for you to examine the transfer rates for community colleges in your state or city.