Rule Changes That Could Boost Minority College-Going

LINDA J. WONG, executive director of USC’s Center for Urban Education,  ESTELA MARA BENSIMON, professor of higher education and co-director of the center, and ALICIA DOWD, associate professor of higher education and co-director of the center:

This article originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee.

“The Obama administration’s decision to make it easier to consider race in promoting diversity in our schools comes at a propitious time for California.

Race and ethnicity are front and center in the state’s education system with minorities now representing 70 percent of public school students and more than half of those attending community colleges. The billions of dollars in education budget cuts have and will continue to hit these students the hardest. But new federal diversity guidelines, if followed, hold out new hope for these students’ college-going prospects.

Under the Bush administration, colleges and universities were advised to avoid race in their decision-making. Fearful of lawsuits, California’s education leaders stayed clear of anything smacking of affirmative action or in violation of Proposition 209’s ban on preferential treatment.

The new diversity guidelines, issued in December by the Justice and Education departments, offer a road map around this hands-off advice. They would permit colleges and universities to consider race or ethnicity if race-neutral measures like standardized tests, household income or geography aren’t sufficient to achieve their diversity goals.

The state’s education leaders should take advantage of this important change and move aggressively to expand college opportunities for Latino and black students.

While admission policies have been the traditional target of diversity efforts, the revised guidelines make other – and potentially more promising – approaches feasible.

Reforms that kick in early in students’ education produce the best academic results, according to research. “Pipeline” programs are such a reform. Typically, they are partnerships between colleges and public schools – even entire school districts – that aim to increase college-going rates of high school students. These programs could be ideal vehicles for helping minority and poor students, which the guidelines now encourage.

Consider the Santa Ana Partnership, which includes the Santa Ana Unified School District, Santa Ana College, California State University, Fullerton, and the University of California, Irvine. At the time the partnership was formed, the school district was already low income and majority Latino. But because the primary goal was to increase enrollment at Santa Ana College, which, like all community colleges, has an open admissions policy, the partnership did not violate Proposition 209.

The partnership’s success is impressive. The number of students who test ready for college-level English and math has increased over the past decade, from 5 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2010 for English, and from 9 percent to 29 percent for math. Meanwhile, Santa Ana College has worked hard to boost Latino transfer rates to four-year schools by 77 percent over the past five years.

Now that race and ethnicity can be used to achieve diversity goals, more pipeline partnerships like Santa Ana’s can reach out to racially isolated and poor schools. This would be an important step toward reversing the recent trend of increased poverty and racial segregation in public schools.

The revamped rules can boost college enrollment of California’s black and Latino students in another way. Research shows the rates at which these students transfer from community colleges to four-year schools to be embarrassingly low. One way to find out why is to collect data on students’ required courses and their progress in them, and then break down the results along racial and ethnic lines. Disaggregating the data, as the practice is known, can uncover institutional or instructional barriers to minority student success.

A few years ago, Wisconsin’s educators did this kind of data analysis to learn why more minority students in community college weren’t transferring to University of Wisconsin campuses.

These students were not, as first thought, academically unprepared or uncommitted to earning a degree. Instead, disaggregating the data showed that most of them attended Wisconsin’s two-year technical colleges instead of the two-year community colleges affiliated with the university. That put them at a decided disadvantage. Technical course credits weren’t accepted for transfer, and students weren’t eligible for certain fee waivers. University leaders have adopted recommendations to revise the old transfer policies.

Some California community colleges have also analyzed their student data along racial/ethnic lines and discovered that their minority-transfer problem had less to do with students’ motivation and achievement than with institutional barriers. When the structural impediments were removed, transfer numbers to four-year schools improved. The new diversity guidelines can accelerate this kind of progress because it sanctions data analysis along racial and ethnic lines.

California’s shaky finances have battered its public-education system for years, and recent cutbacks have rationed black and Latino students’ access to higher education. The old affirmative action policies left an enduring legacy that using race to achieve diversity would result in quotas or the admission of unqualified students. The new guidelines dramatically change the landscape by offering a clear rationale for why race still matters in creating effective learning environments. California’s higher education leaders should use the rules to clear away obstacles still preventing too many black and Latinos from a shot at a college diploma.”


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