- First, the authors are very good writers; and
- Second, the book only contains the authors' logic, their most important findings, and some superbly constructed bar charts and line graphs that illustrate their findings. They banish the underlying technical discussions of data collection, sampling, variable construction, handling of missing variables, etc, etc, etc to a 150 page appendix published on a Website ...http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/appendix_8971.pdf
"We believe that these superior graduation rates among transfers (after adjusting for differences in observable credentials and background characteristics) reflect strong selection effects. That is, students who come to four-year institutions from two-year colleges have already successfully managed the transition from high school to one kind of college experience. We strongly suspect that their subsequent success at four-year institutions, compared with the outcomes of first-time freshmen, reflects differences in aspirations, maturity, social capital, and coping skills (including a demonstrated ability to 'stay the course'). The two-year colleges, in short, are a 'sorting mechanism' that works to the benefit of the four-year institutions to which their students transfer." (p. 143)
"The parallel, and even more revealing, finding is that high school GPA is very positively and very consistently associated with six-year graduation rates whatever the level of the high school that the student attended. From the perspective of our interest in predicting the probability that a student will earn a bachelor's degree, the conclusion is straight-forward, with modest qualifications: 'a grade is a grade is a grade.' Students with very good high school grades who attended not-very-strong high schools nonetheless graduated in large numbers from whatever university they attended. On the other hand, students with relatively weak academic records in high school have much lower graduation rates than their higher-achieving high school classmates -- again, whatever the academic level of the high school they attended." (p. 122; italics in authors' text)
"Our interpretation of this entire set of findings is a simple one: High school grades are such a powerful predictor of graduation rates in part because they reveal mastery of course content. But the 'in part' formulation is critically important. In our view, high school grades reveal much more than mastery of content. They reveal qualities of motivation and perseverance -- as well as the presence of good study habits and time management skills -- that tell us a great deal about the chances that a student will complete a college program." (p. 124; italics in author's text)
Chapter 5 -- " High Schools and 'Undermatching' " -- presents some of the book's most disturbing findings. Whereas conservatives have often lamented that affirmative action would tend to place Black students in colleges that were above their capabilities, i.e., to "overmatch" them, the authors' data demonstrates the opposite phenomenon. The best Black students in their massive sample tended to "undermatch", i.e, to enroll in colleges that were below their capabilities. In the authors' own words:
"Within this highly qualified group of seniors, undermatches appear to have been more common among black students (especially black women) than among white students -- in part because a number of black students undermatched to HBCUs." (p 103)The authors used the extensive data they obtained from North Carolina to determine that most of the highly qualified Black students never applied to the flagships at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State. Perhaps their most surprising finding was that highly qualified students who undermatched, i.e., chose to attend less challenging colleges, did not do as well as highly qualified students who enrolled in the flagship institutions. The authors pick up this theme again in Chapter 11:
"In other groupings by high school GPA, the pattern is essentially the same -- black male students who went to more selective institutions graduated at higher, not lower, rates than black students in the same GPA interval who went to less selective institutions. Moreover, contrary to what the overmatch or mismatch hypothesis would lead us to expect, the relative graduation rate advantage associated with going to a more selective university was even more pronounced for black men at the lower end of the high school grade distribution than it was for students with better high school records. ... There is certainly no evidence that black men were 'harmed' by going to the more selective universities that chose to admit them. In fact, the evidence available strongly suggests that students in general, including black students, are generally advised to enroll at the most challenging university that will accept them." (p. 109, 110; italics in authors' text)
E. But What About Non-Elite Black Students?
A few months ago, a high level manager of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) alerted me to a research effort currently in progress that is finding that the HBCUs in North Carolina are doing more than twice as well as other state schools with regards to average Black students, i.e., the non-elite students who do not qualify for entry into the state's flagship universities. If this finding holds up at the end of the study, it will provide an important complement/correction to the book's assertion that non-elite Black students would be better off at elite institutions -- if they were accepted.
Hopefully, the research cited by the UNCF manager will also provide some data-driven insights as to why these particular HBCUs have been so effective in educating average Black students. And could their innovations be adopted by the non-HBCUs in North Carolina and elsewhere? Such findings would support our claims that HBCUs are not only historically important institutions; they deserve America's continued support for years to come because of the significant contributions that they continue to make to American higher education.
(Note: North Carolina has three kinds of colleges: flagships, HBCUs, and other colleges that are neither flagships nor HBCUs. Bowen and associates lumped HBCUs together with the "others"; and perhaps the research cited by the UNCF manager combined flagships with "others". So it's possible that average Black students might be better off at flagships than at "other" colleges, but might not do as well at flagships or "other" colleges as they would at HBCUs.)
F. Institutional Research
When I summarized the book's findings for a colleague, he expressed skepticism because he felt that the advantages of GPAs over test scores as well as some of its other findings would have been discovered by various colleges and universities through periodic examinations of their own data -- if these findings were valid. Exploiting the findings from their self-studies would have given the innovators a competitive advantage over other institutions.
These kinds of self-studies are usually conducted by "Institutional Research" units (or units having similar titles). But when I used the Gateway's comprehensive, Google-based search tool (found on the Gateway's Home Page http://www.dll.org/hbcus) that enables users to search all HBCU Websites simultaneously, I only found 32 Websites that listed Institutional Research units. Most had small staffs; more specifically, they either listed no staff or only listed one or two staff members; and few of the listed staffers had advanced degrees. Therefore I think it is safe to infer that, at this time, the vast majority of HBCUs do not have the kind of staff that would enable them to apply sophisticated, statistical, computer-based analytical techniques to their student records to obtain the kind of findings reported by Dr. Bowen and his associates. (Note:Alabama A& M University is a notable exception --http://www.aamu.edu/irpsp/contact_us.aspx; Xavier University is another --http://www.xula.edu/planningir/contacts.php; and FAMU is a third --http://www.famu.edu/index.cfm?oir&Staff.)
The authors' findings are based on student records from a broad sample of colleges and universities. Although their sample included 11 HBCUs in four states, the validity of these findings cannot automatically be assumed for HBCUs in other states. Indeed, they should also be confirmed by independent analysis of the student records for HBCUs in the four states included in the book's research. These considerations lead me to issue the following challenge to the few HBCUs that have IR units with sufficiently skilled staff:
- Please analyze your student records so as to address the most important questions considered by Dr. Bowen and his associates (if you haven't already done so); then share your findings with the entire HBCU community and with interested colleagues at other colleges and universities by publishing them on your Websites.