It seems as if the roaring debate over affirmative action has again emerged. Much of the debate centers about education. Critics appear to believe that a policy to aggressively counter discrimination against minority groups is no longer necessary and, further, serves only to create unfair privileges. My paper will investigate the question of affirmative action in schooling for minorities in order to address the issue of affirmative action in college admissions. What is the evidence that supports arguments for or arguments against affirmative action policies in college admissions?
Affirmative action is defined in Webster’s dictionary as "a policy or program for correcting the effects of discrimination in the employment of education of members of certain groups." There are many different types of advantage policies that no one seems to question. For example, there are many students who get privileges at universities because their parents or relatives are alumni. No one pickets or rallies against this practice. Minority groups are trying to keep affirmative action in order to compensate for the lack of demographic and economic balances within the population of educational systems. A major crisis facing American higher education today is the rapidly declining number of Blacks successfully graduating from institutions of higher education at all levels-- 2-year and 4-year colleges, graduate schools, and professional schools. Many educators, political leaders, civil rights’ groups, and other concerned organizations have expressed alarm in recent years about the drop in the percentage of Black high school graduates who go on to 4-yeart colleges and beyond. "Although more Blacks are obtaining high school diplomas, the number of Black high school graduates, ages 18 to 25 years old, who enrolled in college fell from 33.5% in 1976 t 26.1% in 1985" (Lang, Barriers to Blacks, p.510; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1987). To some extent this decline in Black college enrollment reflects an overall national decline in college enrollment. Yet, the enrollment of the traditionally underrepresented minorities has been increasing. Even more devastating is the fact that the graduation rate of Blacks from 4-year colleges, graduate schools, and professional schools has dropped drastically as well.
What are the reasons for this situation? What can or needs to be done in order to change these trends? What are the potential consequences if these trends are not changed? Part of the problem is encouraging Black youths to make the transition from high school to college. The more crucial concern, however, "is getting Black youths through college to graduation and into and graduate from graduate and professional schools" (Wilson, The Black Community in the 1980’s, p.459). To begin addressing these pertinent questions, it is necessary to examine some factors that are affecting Blacks in higher education in recent years.
Recent research clearly shows that the higher attrition rates of Black students are largely attributable to their socio-economic background and to certain peculiar characteristics of higher education institutions. Yet, "it has also become clear that when socio-economic factors are controlled, the attrition rate of Blacks after enrolling in college is not strikingly different from that of Whites" (David, Achievement and Ascription in Admission to an Elite College, p.371). This points directly to the significance of institutional factors on the attrition of Black Students after college enrollment. The research literature (Astin, 1975, 1982; Christoffel, 1986) further provides specific explanations for the disproportionately large attribution for Black students. Those factors include the academic preparation of Black students for higher education, the availability of family resources and access to institutional financial-aid resources, and the institutional barriers to access, enrollment, and retention.
Why does equal opportunity in higher educational institutions continue to be a problem for minorities? Why do the retention and graduation rates for Blacks continue to decline? And, what are viable options for improving the access and retention of minorities in institutions of higher education? These are some of the major questions that must be addressed in a systematic research agenda.
"The Civil Rights’ Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s was in part a struggle to gain for minorities equal access to the nation’s institutions of higher learning" (Lang, Barriers to Blacks, p.514). Yet, over a quarter of a century later, minorities are still underrepresented, as students, faculty, and staff, at predominately White colleges and universities across the country. The inequitable status of minorities in higher educational institutions continues has generated considerable scholarly debate over the last few years.
It was during the administration of President John F. Kennedy that significant programs were initiated to provide federal financial aid for minority students to pursue a college education. "During the early 1960’s, the federal government instituted such programs as the National Defense Educational Act (NDEA), the National Defense Student Loan program (NDSL), and work-study programs that made it easier for minority students (especially Blacks) to have the financial support necessary to attend college for the first time in the nation’s history" (Lang, Barriers to Blacks, p.515). Other programs followed in the mid and late 1960s, such as the Basic Education Opportunity Grants program (BEOG) and the Equal Opportunity Grants (EEOP). Both of these programs provided direct loans or grants to low-income and minority students who qualified for college admissions and enrollment. Because of these programs, these students began to enroll en masse in colleges and universities across the nation. By the mid-1970’s the enrollment of Black students had reached its historic peak. The predominately Black colleges and universities felt the initial effects and reaped the benefits of these programs.
The attack on affirmative action began with the Reagan/Bush administration decision to not enforce certain federal policies on affirmative action. During this era, "substantial reallocations were made in federal student aid programs, with a significant impact because most minority college students depend on some form of federal financial aid" (Wilkerson, The Masks of Meritocracy and Egalitarianism, p.65). The decrease in federal support for minority student financial-aid programs has certainly hurt the access of minority students to institutions of higher learning. Furthermore, their generally inferior socio-economic status continues to be severe deterrents to obtaining a higher education. For example, "approximately 31.5% of Blacks and other non-Hispanic minority families in the U.S. live below the poverty level" (Wilson, The Black Community in the 1980’s, p.456). Similarly, about 28% of Hispanic families live below the poverty level (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1985, 1987). The results suggest that affirmative action policies implemented by colleges during the 1960’s and early 1970’s were successful in encouraging the enrollment of Black students. Increased funding of scholarship award programs would provide a mechanism for reversing the recent downward trend in minority enrollment in institutions of higher education.
The aforementioned statistics have serious implications for family resources available to support the funding of higher education and for the preparedness of minority students to succeed in college once they get accepted. Minority families, in general, earn substantially less than White families in the United States. Thus, fewer families’ resources are available to provide exposure to as many learning experiences for minority children outside of school. "Considering the general poorer quality of public secondary schools in minority neighborhoods, minority students would be less adequately prepared t score as high on college entrance tests as white students" (White, Two Views of Standardized Testing, p.335). Yet, scholars seldom consider this when they debate the lower level of minority students’ performance on college entrance exams.
"Nevertheless, there are sufficient data available to show that when the college entrance test scores of minority and White students of similar socio-economic status and background are compared, their scores are relatively comparable" (White Two Views of Standardized Testing, p.340). This supports the argument that the lack of financial resources, family situations, and other social and economic factors results in minority students being less prepared for college success. A blatant fallacy is the notion that low college entrance scores, or college entrance scores themselves, are the best measures and predictors of intelligence. These scores measure best what one has already learned both in and out of school, not one’s intellectual capability or capacity to learn.
In a recent report, Orfield and Paul (1988) concluded that four major issues are clearly linked to the declining admission and retention rates of minority students in higher education. According to Lang, these issues include:
* segregation in primary and secondary schools
*Increasing costs of higher education
*Inadequate assistance to unprepared students
*Lack of commitment to equal opportunity by institutions of higher education.
Continuing segregation of minority students in primary and secondary schools with poor facilities affects every aspect of student preparedness. Orfield and Paul (1988) compared majority White schools to schools where more that five out of six students were from minority backgrounds. In most cases, the minority schools had:
*Teachers with fewer advanced degrees, and degrees from less prestigious or less selective colleges
*Fewer resources for counseling those students who relied more on counselors for course decisions and for making college choices
*Wider differences in scores on achievement tests
The gap that is widening between the learning experiences of minority students and their non-minority counterparts can also be attributed to the continuing segregation in primary and secondary schools. "This comes from tracking, less enriching curricula and academic programs, and ultimately less preparation and capability for college entry" (Wilkerson, The Mask of Meritocracy and Egalitarianism, p.65).
Scholars generally recognize the deteriorating conditions of the inner-city schools that most minority students attend. There appears to be an unspoken agreement among higher educational institutions (especially predominately White institutions) to ignore this factor when evaluating students for admission. "The philosophy of these institutions is to attract and admit the best prepared students they can find" (David, Achievement and Ascription in Admission to an Elite College, p.380). Thus, these institutions look upon redemption and development programs or other programs that address the needs of under-prepared students as automatically lowering the standards, tarnishing the image, and damaging the reputation of their ‘fine’ institutions.
"Admittedly, there is still a gross lack of commitment on the part of institutions, state and federal agencies, and higher education leaders to improve the access of minorities to higher education" (Lang, Barriers to Blacks, p.518). During the past decade, there has been noticeable decline in national sentiment favoring equal opportunity, fairness, and a commitment to the concerns of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. Since academic institutions are microcosms reflecting the larger society, this attitude has obviously trickled down to them as well. Higher education administrators and scholars alike know that the direction within academic institutions permeates form the top downward. Thus, if the boards of trustees and chief academic officers at these institutions "were to commit themselves to equal opportunity and direct their underlings to carry out their directives, minority access would improve as well" (Wilson, The Black Community in the e1980’s, p.339). Because Civil Rights’ enforcement became essentially non-existent in the 1980’s, institutions view this relaxed mood of the federal government as an endorsement of its non-commitment to equal access and opportunity for minorities. Orfield and Paul (1988) characterize this scenario perfectly by stating that "where there is no commitment there can be only token response or none at all" (p.61).
In addressing the need for minority student retention and access, one solution lies outside of national legislation and policy-making. If diversity is truly one of the goals of higher education, then the need for change should first be realized by these institutions. We can legislate actions, but we cannot legislate attitudes and commitments. It is the attitude and commitment of institutions that need to be changed. Most institutions have had affirmative action and equal opportunity policies for more than twenty years; and now they are trying to take these programs away.
Very basic issues still need to be addressed, and indeed some new policy-making may be appropriate. In the meantime, much can be done to improve the access and retention of minorities in higher education. "Colleges and universities can begin by strengthening their linkages with elementary and secondary schools in inner-city areas, where the greatest minority populations reside" (Wilson, The Black Community in the 1980’s, p.28). Atwell (1988) points out that higher education institutions are obligated t o work with these schools, not to rescue the students or share great wisdom, but because their futures are inextricably tied to each other. When colleges and universities have exemplary programs to pilot, they are already available for elementary and secondary schools. If these institutions would begin to take their model programs to inner-city areas, improvements could begin toward the preparation of minority students for college work.
The ultimate problem is that too many higher education institutions, and the public resources that support them, exist only for the elite upper classes while few exist for the masses. In the end, society pays double. Because we fail to fully overcome the burden of historic exclusionary and discriminatory racial practices in the educational system, we fail to fully use and develop our most valuable national resource, our human resource.
Minority student access and retention are educational processes’ they are not merely programs. The success of these programs should not be measured by the mere numbers of minority students being enrolled in and graduating from colleges. They should be measured by structural changes in institutions designed to accommodate the diversity of skills, cultural backgrounds, adeptness, and historical legacies that minorities bring with them to school. This is what affirmative action does. It enables minorities to start at the same level at which Whites begin. They should also be measured by the articulation and realization of the institutions’ commitment to minority access and success.
1. Lang, Marvel, Barriers to Backs’ Educational Achievement in Higher Education: A Statistical and Conceptual Review, Journal of Black Studies; 1992, 22, 4, June, 510-522.
2. Kane, John; Spizman, Lawrence M., Race, Financial Aid Awards & College Attendance; Parents and Geographical Matter, American Journal of Economics and Sociology; 1994, 53, 1, January, 85-97.
3. So, Alvin Y., The Black Schools, Journal of Black Studies; 1992, 22, 4, June, 523-531.
4. Olivas, Michael A., The Attack on Affirmative Action, Change; 1993, 252, March-April, 16-20.
5. Karen, David, Achievement and Ascription in Admission to an elite College, Sociological Forum; 1991, 6, 2, June, 349-380.
6. White, David, Two Views of Standardized Testing, Harvard Educational review; 1985, 55, 3, August, 332-341.
7. Wilson, William J., The Black Community in the 1980’s, Annuals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science; 1981, 454, March, 26-41.
8. Wilkerson, Margaret B., The Masks of Meritocracy & Egalitarianism, Educational Record; 1982, 63, 1, winter, 4-11.
9. Atwell, R.H. (1988), Minority Participation in Higher Education: We Need a New Momentum, Washington, DC: American Council on Education.
10. Christopher, P. (1986, October). Minority Access and Retention: A Review, (Research and Development Update). New York: The College Entrance Examination Board.
11. Orfield, G., & Paul, F. (1988, Fall-Winter). Declines in Minority Access: A Tale of Five Clients, Educational Record, 57-62.
12. U.S. Bureau of the Census, (1987), Summary Characteristics of the Black Population for States and Selected Countries and Places: 1980 (Supplementary Report PC 80-51-21). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
13. U.S. Bureau of the Census (1985), Statistical Abstract of the U.S., 1986 (106th ed.), Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
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