Affirmative Action Special Report
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Debating Without Facts

By Richard Harwood
Monday, January 12, 1998; Page A17

The White House-sponsored dialogue on race has been a flop up to now in large part because too many people, black and white, don't know what they're talking about.

That includes the media, especially in our treatment of affirmative action. We have created the impression that without "preferences" blacks would be shut out of the higher education system. And we have created the corollary impression that "minority preferences" are rampant, imperiling the educational future of far too many whites.

But in all of the uproar and despite countless words written and broadcast on the issue, the information offered the public on affirmative action is limited. How many people are affected? Who benefits? Who is hurt?

The truth is that with or without affirmative action almost any high school graduate who can read, write and do the multiplication tables -- and a lot who can do none of those things well -- can go to college today. It's a buyer's market. Schools bid against one another for students, using financial incentives and other inducements. Many institutions admit almost everyone who applies. Others, including such well-regarded schools as Michigan, Tulane, Wisconsin, Auburn, Ohio State, Purdue and American University in Washington, admit 70 percent to 90 percent of applicants.

Of course, it's a lot easier to get into college than to stay there. Only 45 percent of the students who graduated from high school in 1982 and earned at least 10 college credits had received a bachelor's degree by the time they were 30 years old. Dropout rates at many institutions are 70 percent to 90 percent. At Fisk University in Nashville, for years one of the most prestigious of the historically black colleges, the graduation rate is 2 percent, according to U.S. News and World Report. These dropout rates tell us that tens of thousands of students not cut out for college work are being drawn into the higher education system.

Such statistics are rarely or inadequately reported. The press instead focuses on affirmative action "problems" at "highly selective" schools such as Harvard and Yale. And even in our obsessive scrutiny of matters involving those celebrated citadels of learning, the reporting is often murky and misleading. In part that is because of the failure of the U.S. Department of Education and other government agencies to publish the kind of information that would clarify the issues. Some colleges and universities involved in "affirmative action" controversies also complicate the problem by withholding information, for example, on the nature of "preferential" admissions.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, however, has been able to assemble much of the relevant information. So have some academicians. We learn from the journal that 292,855 students applied to the 24 most prestigious universities in America for admission to the freshman class of 1996. About 5 percent of these applicants -- 13,801 -- were black. The schools offered admission to 96,369 students (33 percent of all the students who applied). They offered admission to 35 percent of the black applicants -- 5,563 students -- but only 2,305 accepted (41 percent). They represented a small percentage of the new freshmen that year -- from fewer than one percent at CalTech to 12 percent at the University of Virginia.

How many of these black students were academically "unqualified" for the schools that admitted them? The journal obtained SAT scores from a number of these leading schools. The midpoint score for white students in all the schools was higher than the midpoint scores of black students. The gap ranged from 288 points at the Berkeley campus of the University of California to 150 points at Princeton, Johns Hopkins and other schools. Those numbers quantify the "racial preference" involved in some of these admissions. But in every case, the black students in these elite schools had higher average SAT scores -- in some cases as much as 200 points higher -- than the national average (946) for whites. The explanation is simple. SAT scores at these "elite" schools are astronomical in terms of what the average high school graduate achieves on the test. At Harvard, for example, the midpoint SAT score for blacks in the freshman class in 1992 (I have not found more recent numbers) was 1,305, a score that would get these students into any university in the world, a score so close to the white midpoint score that it was described by an affirmative action critic as not "statistically meaningful."

This doesn't resolve the larger issues raised by affirmative action and racial preference in college admissions: Some high-scoring whites and probably Asians too are being passed over for black applicants with lower test scores. But the numbers are small, and the evidence refutes the common argument that blacks admitted to these highly selective schools are necessarily "unqualified" to be there. But this gets lost in the debate.

Affirmative action has other problems. It began as a way to get women, blacks and other specified minorities into jobs and schools formerly unavailable to them. Women may no longer qualify, and if they do get preferences in college admissions, they shouldn't, now being in the majority (more than 55 percent nationally) on campuses all over the country. Asian Americans also may no longer qualify -- and shouldn't -- in many jurisdictions because they have the highest level of educational attainment in the country and the highest incomes as well.

Hispanics are often shortchanged under affirmative action. They outnumber blacks in California by more than 3 to 1 but, according to Stephan Thernstrom of Harvard, they have been receiving no more places than blacks in the state's college set-asides for "underrepresented" minorities.

Another question is whether the beneficiaries of affirmative action are not disproportionately drawn from the middle and upper class. Few black kids from the inner cities are lining up outside Ivy League institutions. We would know more about that subject if the government and the universities released more information about who gets what.

That's a job for the president's advisory board for the initiative on race. Until the issues are better understood, we can stage dialogues and talk till we're blue in the face without achieving anything.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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