D. Conclusions and Comments
1. The "Overmatch Hypothesis" vs. Affirmative Action
As per Crossing the Finish Line (2009), the "Overmatch Hypothesis"
"... is often made by opponents of affirmative action who claim that race-sensitive admissions policies harm the very minority students they purport to help by stigmatizing them and forcing them into harmful competition with white classmates of greater ability." (p. 209)The study goes on to note that when Bowen and Bok conducted a previous study of 28 mostly private colleges and universities (The Shape of the River, Princeton University Press, 1998), they "concluded that there was absolutely no support" for this hypothesis. The results displayed in Table 1D and Table 1E of the first part of the current study also suggest that black students do better when their classmates have higher math aptitudes, which is consistent with Bowen and Bok's conclusion.
Crossing the Finish Line goes on to recommend (p. 210) that the "evidence available strongly suggests that students in general, including black students, are generally well advised to enroll at the most challenging university that will accept them" [Italics in the original text]. Based on the extensive analysis of the massive data sets that authors had assembled, they concluded that "black men should be encouraged to 'aim high' when deciding whether and where to pursue educational opportunities beyond high school." Again, the data displayed in Table 1D and Table 1E of this study support this recommendation.
Indeed, the only thing that readers familiar with Crossing the Finish Line might find surprising about the results in Table 1D and Table 1E is the extent to which this pattern is displayed more sharply in Table 1E for the private Non-Research Institutions than in Table 1D for the Research Institutions. While the black students at the Higher Non-Research Institutions are doing better than black students at the Lower Non-Research Institutions, they are also doing much better than the black students at all three types of research institutions. Why? A small, exploratory study like this one can't provide conclusive explanations of this pattern, but it can suggest some credible insights:
- The ultimate explanations certainly won't relate to the resources available to these institutions because, for the most part, research institutions are much larger and wealthier than non-research institutions.
- A more plausible hypothesis leaps to mind -- if only because it's bannered in large fonts on all the Websites and in all the printed catalogs of these small, but highly esteemed colleges and universities. The fact that they don't conduct extensive research programs enables their faculty and staff to enhance their teaching with maximum TLC (tender loving care) ... which is the same "secret sauce" that HBCUs, most of which are also smaller institutions, have traditionally lavished on their students ... :-)
That more than 60,000 black students are now attending the nation's most esteemed institutions of higher learning came as a pleasant surprise for me. To be honest, I wasn't expecting half that many. 60,000 represents two percent of the 3 million black students currently enrolled in accredited U.S. colleges and universities. I was surprised because, like most educators, I have been focused on the 98 percent, most of whom have not been receiving an education that adequately matches their aptitudes and requirements.
Although Dr. DuBois referenced a talented 10 percent, I am sure he would agree that it's more important to enhance the constructive impact of this elite than its percentage. So no matter what the Supreme Court decides about affirmative action, we have to maintain our focus on the grand challenge that Dr. DuBois posed in the opening and closing lines of his classic essay:
- How can we encourage our black elite to provide the leadership that will enable their less fortunate brothers and sisters to obtain better educational opportunities and to make better use of the opportunities they already have???
"African Americans have a lengthy tradition of activism and community service that predates the founding of the NAACP at the turn of the twentieth century. This heritage is reflected in the success of the civil rights movement as well as the subsequent expansion of black professionals in racialized occupational fields like education, social services, community relations, and politics. The desire to improve the fates of African Americans is truly an enduring legacy. The majority of black students in this study articulated a strong desire to aid in black social mobility, and many students believed their career choices were closely tied to their desire to decrease black inequality" (p 127)Dr. Beasley uses the term "racialized fields" to denote well-integrated occupations wherein blacks have already gained substantial access and prominence. Unfortunately, our knowledge-based, globalized economy is now allocating the biggest rewards to STEM, finance, and other high tech occupations wherein blacks are still grossly underrepresented.
- Therein lies the dilemma for talented black students. On the one hand, not being rich (and probably carrying extensive tuition loans), they are attracted by the higher paychecks provided by non-racialized careers; on the other hand it's easy for them to see how their success in racialized fields will have substantial immediate impact on the Black Community.
Faced with their perceptions (real or imagined) of prejudice in non-racialized fields, plus a sense that these fields have limited relevance to the immediate needs the black community, some of these talented black students "opt out" of the higher paying, high tech job to pursue "careers that matter."
- But therein also lies the dilemma for the Black Community. Of course it still needs to develop new leaders in the racialized fields that have become such a significant part of its traditional economic base; but it will incur far larger, long-term economic losses if its elites do not gain access and prominence in the STEM, finance, and the other high tech occupations that have become the higher reward sectors of the global economy.
Opting Out reports that a major factor that influencedthe decisions of black students to transfer out of STEM and high finance majors was their limited access to persons who were knowledgeable about these non-racialized fields. As consequence, the students didn't know much, and much of what they thought they knew was suspect.
- Although their parents and the friends of their parents might have helped them navigate the procedural obstacles that had to be overcome in order to gain admission to Stanford or UC Berkeley, they could not provide hands-on guidance with regards navigating the barriers to entry into STEM and high finance. By contrast, the white students in the study had parents or had access to the friends of their parents who were practicing professionals in these fields.
For example, "... Jason, an aspiring banker (and eventual CEO), was hindered by the limits of the social networks with which he had been brought up. He had no clear concept of how to break into that field. Although supportive, Jason's parents had little education and no understanding of what his options were, nor did anyone from the community in which he was raised. So Jason was left puzzled, wanting to go somewhere, but unsure how." (p 146)
- It's also likely that the black students had limited access to, or even awareness of the existence of the black alumni of their esteemed institutions who had become practicing professionals in these fields a few years earlier. Whereas HBCUs can celebrate the achievements of their alumni who are the "first blacks" to become a this or that, elite non-HBCUs long ago graduated hundreds if not thousands of (mostly white) alums who had become eminent practitioners in all segments of STEM and high finance. So a few more entries wouldn't become the stuff of headlines on their Websites or announcements in their alumni newsletters ... and it would be awkward for esteemed non-HBCUs to ballyhoo these latest entries just because these accomplished alums were black.
The pressing need to get more highly talented blacks into STEM, finance, and other high tech careers translates into the need for a strategy that will enable them to overcome the substantial hurdles to entry and subsequent success in these non-racialized fields while satisfying their desires to "give back" -- in other words, a strategy that will simultaneously finesse their dilemmas as individuals and the dilemmas confronting the Black Community as a whole. Fortunately, such a strategy already exists and is already in practice; so it's just a matter of stimulating its diffusion and more widespread application ... :-)
- Black students in their freshmen and sophomore years at elite colleges and universities should volunteer to assist their institution's efforts to attract more talented black high school juniors and seniors by participating in recruiting trips wherein they answer questions about application forms, what courses to take before the students apply, how to prepare for SAT exams, etc, etc, etc ... and the all-important underlying question: What's it really like to be a black student majoring in STEM, finance, or some other high tech field at the world-renowned University of XYZ???
- Black students in their junior and senior years should participate in high school recruiting drives, but should also volunteer as tutors and mentors for the black freshmen and sophomores.
- Black alums should participate in their alma mater's placement programs wherein they act as career counselors, role models, and mentors for juniors and seniors to facilitate their successful entry into the job market, graduate schools, and professional schools.
The Black Community long ago recognized the value of good connections for professional success.
- Its fraternities not only accept members while they are in college, but throughout their subsequent careers, a practice that makes them more akin to the Masons or Chambers of Commerce.
- A recent survey by the Pew Foundation ("Who's On What) reports that black Americans make far more intensive use of social media than white Americans.
- Given that there are at least 60,000 black students currently enrolled in America's most prestigious colleges and universities, there must be at least an equal number of alums at various stages of their professional careers.
5. The Talented Tenth, HBCUs, MSIs, and Black Higher Education
During the initial phases of this mobilzation, current students and alums will probably focus on serving as mentors, role models, tutors, and career counselors for the black students who are enrolled in their own alma maters. But as quickly as possible, these intramural subnets should be expanded to provide intercollegiate support networks for the much larger populations of black students at HBCUs and other minority serving institutions (MSIs) having high black enrollments. Alums of America's most prestigious institutions should also consider teaching online courses at HBCUs and MSIs as adjunct instructors from time to time.
And those who are committed to pursuing full-time careers in academia should seek one or two-term appointments as assistant professors at HBCUs at early points in their careers and become visiting professors from time to time at later points should they obtain tenured positions at more prestigious institutions. During both appointments they should focus their energies on helping HBCUs to develop innovative technology-based teaching procedures that will enable all colleges and universities to provide more effective learning opportunities for all black students.
- Beasley, Maya. 2011. Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Bowen, William G., Matthew W. Chingos, and Michael S. McPhersonn. 2009. Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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