Minority Report

By Thomas, Evan; Wingert, Pat | Newsweek, March 1, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Minority Report


Thomas, Evan, Wingert, Pat, Newsweek


Byline: Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert

American universities are accepting more minorities than ever. Graduating them is another matter.

Barry Mills, the president of Bowdoin College, was justifiably proud of Bowdoin's efforts to recruit minority students. Since 2003 the small, elite liberal-arts school in Brunswick, Maine, has boosted the proportion of so-called underrepresented minority students (blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, about 30 percent of the U.S. population) in entering freshman classes from 8 percent to 13 percent. "It is our responsibility, given our place in the world, to reach out and attract students to come to our kinds of places," he told a NEWSWEEK reporter. But Bowdoin has not done quite as well when it comes to actually graduating minorities. While nine out of 10 white students routinely get their diplomas within six years, only seven out of 10 black students made it to graduation day in several recent classes.

The picture of diversity--black, white, and brown students cavorting or studying together out on the quad--is a stock shot in college catalogs. The picture on graduation day is a good deal more monochromatic. "If you look at who enters college, it now looks like America," says Hilary Pennington, director of postsecondary programs for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has closely studied enrollment patterns in higher education. "But if you look at who walks across the stage for a diploma, it's still largely the white, upper-income population."

The United States once had the highest graduation rate of any nation. Now it stands 10th. For the first time in American history, there is the risk that the rising generation will be less well educated than the previous one. The graduation rate among 25- to 34-year-olds is no better than the rate for the 55- to 64-year-olds who were going to college more than 30 years ago. Studies show that more and more poor and nonwhite students aspire to graduate from -college--but their graduation rates fall far short of their dreams. The graduation rates for blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans lag far be-hind the graduation rates for whites and Asians. As the minority population grows in the United States, low college--graduation rates become a threat to national -prosperity.

The problem is pronounced at public universities. In 2007 (the last year for which Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group, has comparative statistics) the University of Wisconsin--Madison--one of the top five or so "public Ivies"--graduated 81 percent of its white students within six years, but only 56 percent of its blacks. At less-selective state schools, the numbers get worse. During the same time frame, the University of Northern Iowa graduated 67 percent of its white students, but only 39 percent of its blacks. Community colleges have low graduation rates generally--but rock-bottom rates for minorities. A recent review of California community colleges found that while a third of the Asian students picked up their degrees, only 15 percent of African-Americans did so as well.

Private colleges and universities generally do better, partly because they offer smaller classes and more personal attention. But when it comes to a significant graduation gap, Bowdoin has company. Nearby Colby College logged an 18-point difference between white and black graduates in 2007 and 25 points in 2006. Middlebury College in Vermont, another topnotch school, had a 19-point gap in 2007 and a 22-point gap in 2006. The most selective private schools---Harvard, Yale, and -Princeton--show almost no gap between black and white graduation rates. But that may have more to do with their ability to cherry-pick the best students. According to data gathered by Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier, the most selective schools are more likely to choose blacks who have at least one immigrant parent from Africa or the Caribbean than black students who are descendants of American slaves.

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