A Dangerous Leap

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GraduateIn December, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released two briefing reports whose findings and recommendations some consider ?dangerous.? The reports, ?The Educational Effectiveness of Historically Black Colleges and Universities? and ?Encouraging Minority Students to Pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Careers,? draw from testimony from the likes of Louis W. Sullivan, founding dean and first president of Morehouse School of Medicine; Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State University and a former presidential adviser on Historically Black Colleges and Universities; and Raymond C. Pierce, dean and professor of law at North Carolina Central University, and former deputy assistant secretary for civil rights at the U. S. Department of Education. They also draw on research examining the success of Black students who attended HBCUs versus those enrolled at predominantly white institutions, including the nation?s most selective universities.

?It is from this research ? and the way in which it is presented within the two reports ? that the commission takes a dangerous leap in its findings and subsequent recommendations,? declares Lorelle L. Espinosa, Ph.D.,?director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C, nonprofit dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education worldwide.

Writing in her blog on Jan. 6, Espinosa takes issue with the reports? support of the ?mismatch hypothesis,? which asserts that minority students with lower than average academic credentials at the nation?s selective colleges and universities, and thus admitted through affirmative action, are at an academic disadvantage relative to their peer group and thus prone to failure.
?Not only has the notion of mismatch been repeatedly discounted by numerous empirical studies undertaken by leading researchers and educators, it provides a deeply flawed rationale for keeping underrepresented populations from accessing elite education and advancing their respective communities ? both in socioeconomic terms and through ensuring inquiry that advances science, technology, health care and other pressing concerns for our nation?s whole population,? Espinosa argues.

?This type of deficit-minded thinking further impedes institutional accountability by discouraging those universities with the most robust academic resources and equipped laboratories to actively outreach, enroll and educate this country?s next generation of diverse scientists and engineers.

In its findings, the Commission notes that HBCUs produce a disproportionately high share of African-American students who receive degrees in science, engineering, technology or mathematics (the ?STEM? fields). While only about 20 percent of African-American college students attend HBCUs, 40 percent of all African-American engineers received their degrees from an HBCU; and of the top 21 undergraduate producers of African-American science Ph.D.s, 17 were HBCUs, it says. It concludes: ?The prevalence of academic mismatch, caused by non-HBCUs granting preferential admission to certain minority students as opposed to overt discrimination against African-Americans at non-HBCUs, or African-American students? lack of interest in science, appears to best explain HBCUs? successes in producing African-American STEM graduates.?

The Commission subsequently recommends that African-American students interested in STEM majors may ?particularly wish to consider attending a college or a university, including an HBCU, at which their academic credentials match those of the typical student so that they avoid experiencing the negative effects of academic mismatch.?
It further recommends that ?selective colleges not admit any STEM student with a large deficit in academic credentials relative to its STEM median without informing that student of the potential impact of such deficit on that student? and urges high-school guidance counselors to advise students of the risks of large deficits in academic credentials in a particular college?s STEM program.
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?The mismatch hypothesis not only harms institutions, it harms individual students and their communities?The academic respect afforded to graduates of the nation?s elite research universities then plays out in graduate-school admission and enrollment. Although unfortunate, the majority of elite institutions recruit and enroll a graduate student body that resembles their own undergraduate enrollment. In a similar vein, their postdoctoral researchers and faculty too come from institutions with a similar academic and selective profile as their own,? Espinosa says.

There are currently 103 HBCUs, located mainly in the southeastern United States, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Famous HBCU alumni include W.E.B. Du Bois (Wilberforce), Ralph Ellison (Tuskegee), Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse), Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln), Ruth Simmons (Dillard), and Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State). Among Blacks, 40 percent of all congressmen, 12.5 percent of CEOs, 50 percent of professors at non-HBCUs, 50 percent of lawyers and 80 percent of judges are HBCU graduates.