Saturday, February 04, 2012

Affirmative Action Strategies -- 1

Last update: Friday 8/8/14
Not all affirmative action programs are the same, nor should they be. Unfortunately, when affirmative action programs are discussed in the media, in policy forums, and even in scholarly publications, the significant differences among these programs are often denied and/or glossed over. As a first step, I suggest that it's useful to distinguish between programs that are based on competitive strategies vs. those based on compensatory strategies.

Competitive Strategies
When a college or a university employs a competitive strategy, it seeks to recruit students from groups that are underrepresented in its current student body; but it does so by recruiting members of these underrepresented groups whose  academic aptitudes and preparation are comparable to the students currently enrolled.

  • For example, in its earliest decades Harvard University was a regional institution that recruited most of its students from Massachusetts and its neighboring states in New England. Over time, Harvard diversified geographically by recruiting students from other states in other regions of the country and eventually from other regions of the world. As its curriculum diversified, it recruited students with aptitudes for the new disciplines. And though it began as an all-male institution, by the end of the twentieth century it had diversified by gender to the point where its female students outnumbered its male students.
  • Of course when Harvard diversified with regards to blacks and other minorities, its goal, again, was to recruit minority students who were academically indistinguishable from its majority students (except during an unfortunate, but brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s). So the reader will not be surprised to learn that the U.S. Department of Education's College Navigator Website reports that the six year graduation rates for the cohort of Harvard freshmen who enrolled in 2004 were as follows = (White, 97%) (Black, 97%) ... In other words, Harvard's 600 black undergraduates were academically equal to the other 9,400 undergraduates when they entered, so they graduated at the same rates  as the others. Note that the graduation rates for other minorities were also similar: (Native American, 100%); (Hispanic, 97%); and (Asian American, 100%).
Achieving diversity that subsequently yields equal performance requires higher recruitment costs up front, costs that are affordable by affluent, highly selective private institutions like Harvard. However, such cost differentials would be difficult to justify at public institutions where there would be understandable pressures to invest those additional funds in more scholarships, enhanced science labs and other facilities, and more competitive salaries for faculty.

Compensatory Strategies
But even if the governors and the trustees of public institutions could be persuaded to invest the extra funds required by competitive strategies, they would encounter insurmountable barriers that are the inescapable consequences of centuries of previous mistreatment of the nation's minorities: there aren't enough academically equal minority students to go around. How could it be otherwise? As President Johnson declared in his historic speech that introduced the compensatory strategy that is most commonly associated with the term "affirmative action" today:
"In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope ... But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates." 
            President Lyndon B. Johnson,  Commencement Address at Howard  University, 1965
In other words, a competitive strategy can only be employed by a fraction of the nation's colleges and universities. If the nation is to provide opportunities for higher education to all minority students who have the intellectual aptitude to benefit from such opportunities, most of its colleges and universities will have to employ "compensatory" strategies, i.e., strategies that recruit students who have comparable intellectual aptitudes but have deficiencies in their prior academic preparation. 

Our colleges and universities must recruit these students with a firm commitment to provide them with sufficient compensatory resources after admission that will enable them to overcome their initial deficiencies, resources such as developmental courses, tutors, mentors, and study groups. Access to these additional resources will enable the minority students to master the missing fundamentals as quickly as possible, move into the mainstream, and graduate with qualifications that are comparable to the qualifications of non-minority students with respect to the pursuit of graduate studies or entry into the work force. Note that compensatory resources are not required by the academically equal students recruited by competitive strategies. In other words, competitive strategies incur additional costs in their recruiting processes; whereas compensatory programs incur additional costs after their minority students are admitted.
  • Some minority students will only be marginally less prepared than their non-minority peers; hence they will have minimal need for compensatory resources. Such lightly compensatory cases could be regarded as modified competitive plays.
  • But other minority students will have substantially less preparation than non-minority freshmen; hence they will require substantially greater compensatory support and should be expected to take substantially longer to complete their studies if they are to become as qualified as non-minority students for graduate studies or entry into the work force. Of course, their substantially longer enrollments will also require substantially greater financial aid to cover the additional tuition, books, fees, food, housing, and other living expenses during the additional time required for them to complete their studies.
Not all compensatory programs are the same, nor should they be. On the one hand some institutions have higher standards across the board than other institutions; and the courses in some fields of study are "harder" than the courses in other fields within the same institutions. In other words minority students will need more compensatory resources if they are admitted to more selective institutions; and they will need more compensatory resources if they major in more difficult programs , e.g., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). 

When Compensation Fails
I submit that inadequate design is the root cause of the perceived failure of many compensatory affirmative action programs, i.e.,  the so-called "mismatch problem."  It's not just a matter of money. Even if compensatory programs could be run for free, there are practical limits to the size of the gaps in prior academic preparation that compensatory initiatives can overcome. For example, when I read about engineering programs in selective universities that admit black students whose SATs are more than one standard deviation below the SATs of the non-black freshmen in these programs, I have to shake my head in anger and wonder as to why these institutions are posing such insurmountable challenges to their black freshmen.

STEM programs, but especially the programs in engineering, provide the biggest challenges to institutions implementing compensatory affirmative action strategies. Their sequences of prerequisite and co-requisite courses are more tightly prescribed than in most other undergraduate programs. Hence failure to master the content of the early sections of some courses will lead to failure in later sections of the co-requisite courses; and failure to master pre-requisites denies admission to the later courses in a sequence. And, yes, these programs are more difficult, i.e., their work loads are generally heavier than in most other programs.

Therefore minority students who have substantially deficient preparations on entry will either require substantially greater natural aptitude for more difficult subjects or access to more intensive compensatory resources ... or they will find it necessary to transfer out of engineering into "easier" programs or drop out of school. The good intentions of the designers of such compensatory programs are only a first step. The proof is in the performance. High rates of transfers or high rates of failures should wave bright red flags. Rather than blaming the victims -- the minority students who transferred out or flunked out -- these institutions should be demanding that the designers of their compensatory programs revisit their flawed designs.

A second explanation is more insidious: racism. More than three years into the President Obama's Administration, it will hardly be news to anyone reading this note that racism survived his election in 2008. When it comes to more difficult fields like STEM, the labs and IT resources of HBCUs may not be as extensive as those found at some of the wealthier non-HBCUs, but racism is never a factor in HBCUs. Their abundant supply of black role models and black mentors ensures that black students are never made to feel that they can't master difficult subjects just because they are black.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for non-HBCUs. Therefore higher-than-expected transfers or drop-outs from STEM and other difficult majors should also raise bright red flags that at least some of the students who transferred or dropped out did so because of their perceptions of racism within those departments, departments wherein black instructors and black mentors are usually few and far between. Perhaps the cruelest irony emerges when poorly designed compensatory strategies are applied to the most difficult undergraduate majors, e.g., engineering, that demand the strongest academic aptitudes. The mismatched enrollment of black students whose aptitudes are beneath this threshold may reinforce stereotypical notions about the "inherent inferiority" of all black students among the program's non-black students and among the program's non-black faculty. These fallacious notions may then be applied to the best and brightest black students, students whose intellectual capabilities are every bit as high as those of their non-black peers.

Note: The distinction between the strategies referred to in this note as "competitive" and "compensatory" was first proposed by Maya A. Beasley, PhD, in her senior honors thesis at Harvard University in 1997 in the Department of Sociology under the supervision of Professor William Julius Wilson. Her recent publication, Opting Out, Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite (University of Chicago Press, 2011), provides an extensive examination of the influence of perceived prejudice on the decisions by some of the nation's brightest black undergraduates to transfer out of STEM and other complex disciplines.

Author's Note: The immediate stimulus for this essay was the following report that was posted on one of Duke University's Websites, "What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice"

Related notes: