What people say about Color and Money-

"Anyone interested in the inequities of the selective college admissions process will find Color and Money clear-eyed, hard-hitting, enlightening, and informative."--Rachel Toor, author of Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process.
"For those concerned about why the march toward social justice in America has faltered badly for nearly forty years, Peter Schmidt's Color and Money is a highly instructive--and greatly disturbing--guidepost." --Richard Kluger, author of Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality.
"An indispensible guide to the debate over affirmative action in the United States."--Michael Lind, author of The Next American Nation.
"This book is a must read for anyone concerned with access to higher education, especially to the nation’s elite universities, as well as with larger questions of social policy and social justice."--Terry MacTaggart, Former Chancellor, University of Maine System
"Books on the highly-charged issue of affirmative action are usually one-sided and inflammatory. Peter Schmidt's Color and Money is a wonderful exception. It provides an honest and fair examination that is also passionate and illuminating."--Richard D. Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation, and author of The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action

Peter Schmidt is available as a speaker

Peter Schmidt is available to speak at colleges, bookstores, schools, churches, and at gatherings of education associations. His past speaking engagements are listed at the bottom of this Web site. If interested in having him appear, e-mail him at schmidt_peter@msn.com. He also is available as an expert source for journalists covering affirmative action. Those on a tight deadline should email him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.

Hear interviews with Peter Schmidt

Jack Lessenberry of Michigan Public Radio talked to Peter Schmidt about Color and Money in August. You can hear the interview here. Reading the book inspired Jack to write an essay on it, which you can read here. You also can hear Peter Schmidt talk about his book on the NPR program Justice Talking and in a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast.

Color and Money Is a College Course!

Many college professors are now using Color and Money in their classes, but Jack Dougherty, the director of the educational studies program at Trinity College in Connecticut, has gone a big step beyond. He has decided to name a freshman seminar "Color and Money" and to structure the class around the book. He has graciously agreed to share his syllabus, available here, for faculty members at other colleges who may have the same idea.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Harvard and Princeton Reinstate Admission Policies that Favor the Wealthy

Both Harvard and Princeton have announced that they are reinstating early admission programs, despite their admission in dropping the programs five years ago that such policies favor the wealthy, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Both institutions announced their policy change on the same day. They said that going without early admission programs had put them at a disadvantage because other colleges that compete for the same students had not followed their lead in dumping such policies. (The University of Virginia had done so, but it reinstated early admissions last fall.)

As Richard Kahlenberg notes in a blog post about the change, research on early admission programs has found that the students who apply early-action are disproportionately economically advantaged and white.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Federal Investigation Finds Naval Academy Swatted Affirmative-Action Gadfly

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has announced that its investigators found evidence that the U.S. Naval Academy punished an English professor for his public criticisms of its affirmative-action policies by denying him a pay raise.

In a press release announcing its conclusions, covered in depth by Peter Schmidt in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, the federal investigative office said the Naval Academy had agreed to a legal settlement with the professor, Bruce E. Fleming, thus avoiding litigation in the matter.

The terms of the settlement are confidential, but Mr. Fleming said he was happy with it--an assessment that suggests he got his raise.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Judge Rejects the Latest Legal Challenge to California's Proposition 209

A U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco has dismissed the latest lawsuit challenging California's Proposition 209 ban on the use of racial and ethnic preferences by public colleges and other state and local agencies.

As discussed in depth in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Judge Samuel Conti did not buy the plaintiff's argument that the legal landscape had changed significantly in the 13 years since the federal courts last upheld the ban passed by California in 1996.

The activist group that filed the latest California lawsuit, as well as a similar lawsuit challenging the preference ban adopted by Michigan's voters, had said its efforts in the court were motivated partly by a desire to throw a wrench into campaigns for similar referenda. Here, too, they appear to have been thwarted; about 60 percent of Arizona voters approved a preference ban there in last month's elections.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Arizona Vote Leaves Well Over 4 in 10 U.S. Hispanics in States with Affirmative Action Bans

With last month's adoption of Proposition 107 by Arizona voters, well over 4 in 10 Hispanic residents of the United States live in states where public colleges are banned from considering race or ethnicity in admission decisions.

Based on U.S. Census Bureau data from 2008, the most recent year for which the bureau offers detailed population estimates for individual states, about 43.6 percent of the nation's Hispanic residents reside in the six states that have such bans in effect: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, and Washington. Before Arizona joined the column of states with such prohibitions, about 39.4 percent of the nation's Hispanic residents lived in states where colleges could not consider race or ethnicity in deciding which applicants to admit.

Given the relatively small size of Arizona's black population, the state's adoption of Proposition 107, which passed with about 60 percent of the vote, did not significantly change the picture for blacks nationally. The share living in states where public colleges are legally barred from considering applicants' ethnicity or race rose only slightly, from about 18.2 percent to about 18.3 percent, based on 2008 Census numbers.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Book Contains a History of Legacy Admissions Written by Peter Schmidt

Peter Schmidt has written a chapter on the history of legacy preferences at American colleges for the new book Affirmative Action for the Rich? Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, published by the Century Foundation.

The Century Foundation's description of the book says:
The use of race-based affirmative action in higher education has given rise to hundreds of books and law review articles, numerous court decisions, and several state initiatives to ban the practice. However, surprisingly little has been said or written or done to challenge a larger, longstanding "affirmative action" program that tends to benefit wealthy whites: legacy preferences for the children of alumni.

Affirmative Action for the Rich sketches the origins of legacy preferences, examines the philosophical issues they raise, outlines the extent of their use today, studies their impact on university fundraising, and reviews their implications for civil rights. In addition, the book outlines two new theories challenging the legality of legacy preferences, examines how a judge might review those claims, and assesses public policy options for curtailing alumni preferences.

The book includes chapters by Michael Lind of the New America Foundation; Peter Schmidt of the Chronicle of Higher Education; former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden; Chad Coffman of Winnemac Consulting, attorney Tara O'Neil, and student Brian Starr; John Brittain of the University of the District of Columbia Law School and attorney Eric Bloom; Carlton Larson of the University of California—Davis School of Law; attorneys Steve Shadowen and Sozi Tulante; Sixth Circuit Court Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr. and attorney Donya Khalili; and education writer Peter Sacks.
Although Peter Schmidt's contribution is a straightforward history, other chapters in the book make the case that legacy preferences should be abolished and the courts should strike them down as unconstitutional. The Century Foundation is hosting a forum on the book on September 22 at the National Press Club.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

California's Proposition 209 Upheld By State's Supreme Court

As discussed at more length here in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the California Supreme Court has upheld that state's Proposition 209 ban on affirmative-action preferences, in a case involving public contracting by the city of San Francisco. In a 6-to-1 ruling, the state's highest court rejected San Francisco's argument that Proposition 209 violates the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause because it creates barriers for minority and female contractors that are not faced by other constituencies seeking favored treatment. The decision that left open the possibility that San Francisco can show its preferential contracting program is necessary to remedy discrimination.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Are Elite Colleges Biased Against Poor, White, Conservative Christians? Sorting Fact from Fiction

It has been a heady few weeks for those who pay attention to the admission policies and enrollments of the nation's elite colleges. First, several right-leaning opinion writers sounded alarms about new research purportedly showing that such institutions are culturally biased against applicants who are white, working-class, Christian, and denizens of rural, Republican-leaning states. A chorus of pundits then challenged such claims, with one, American Prospect columnist Monica Potts, asserting that whites "have a large advantage over people of color in almost every way possible in every area of life, regardless of income." Finally, apparently tired of the whole controversy, several others argued that the debate over fairness in admission to elite colleges is mainly the concern of self-absorbed, upper-middle-class whites, and a distraction from the nation's real educational problems.

Although most such arguments contained kernels of truth, one had so sift through an awful lot of overstatement and false assumption find them. What follows is a discussion of what the research on the subject actually says, and why it matters.

As discussed in detail
here on a Chronicle of Higher Education blog on academic publishing, the book that was erroneously credited with providing the smoking gun of elite-college bias against working-class, Christian, red-state, white kids is No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. It was written by Thomas J. Espenshade, professor of sociology at Princeton University, and Alexandria Walton Radford, a research associate at the Washington-based consulting firm MPR Associates, based on their exhaustive analysis of federal data and of institutional records and student survey results from eight unnamed elite colleges.

Espenshade and Radford conclude in their book that coming from an economically disadvantaged background appears, in itself, to hurt a white student's chances of gaining admission to an elite private college. That's hardly news to anyone who follows such research. The likely explanation for much--or maybe even all--of the uphill climb faced by competitive low-income and working-class white applicants lies in the fact that they generally are denied any sort of admission preference, and they are competing for a finite number of freshman class seats against several populations for whom the bar is lowered. Confirming other research discussed at length in Color and Money, Espenshade and Radford found that such colleges show favoritism toward, for example, blacks and Hispanics, legacies, and graduates of prestigious high schools. By definition, white kids from humble backgrounds do not qualify for minority preferences. And, by virtue of their background, they are unlikely to be legacies, or to have graduated from expensive private high schools or from well-financed and well-regarded public high schools in wealthy communities. They may qualify for another type of admissions preferences widely used by colleges--preferences for recruited athletes. But here they often are hindered by inequities in high schools' athletic programs, as well as the challenges their families likely faced in financing their kids' involvement in sports that cannot be played at advanced levels without club memberships, travel, or expensive equipment. (See, for example, Chapter 5 of Dan Golden's The Price of Admission, titled "Title IX and the Rise of the Upper Class Athlete.")

Being unlikely to benefit from favoritism does not necessarily equate to being the target of outright bias, and Espenshade and Radford do not claim to have any evidence that elite private colleges are specifically biased against white students from humble backgrounds. That is not to say conclusively that no such bias exists. Color and Money summarizes research showing that faculty members disproportionately are the children of professionals, and that tenured faculty members and college administrators generally earn salaries that put them at or above the middle-class level. (Many college presidents and high-level administrators earn enough to be classified as nothing less than filthy rich.) But, while a lot of anecdotal evidence and qualitative research suggests that elite colleges can seem like unwelcoming environments to faculty members and students from the working class, there exists, at this point, no smoking gun showing that the institutions' systematic exclusion of many working-class students is based on cultural or political antipathy. It might well be the case, instead, that the backgrounds of many people at such institutions leave them without much sympathy for white people who are not as well off, or personally invested in the status quo and the belief (inscribed on many of Austria's community beer-drinking tables) that the people who belong there are the people who are there. Many college admissions officers characterize the problem as structural: They say they bend over backwards to recruit--and urge their institutions to admit--white kids from humble backgrounds, only to find many such applicants getting bumped out of the running to make room for admission candidates championed by the athletics director, the diversity office, and people using the admission process to do favors for college employees, donors, and the politically powerful.

Where did those taking the conclusions of Espenshade and Radford a step further--and alleging bias against white, Christian, working-class, rural, red-state America--lay hands on their purported smoking gun? It was a finding by the two researchers that high levels of involvement in career-oriented extracurricular activities—such as the 4-H Clubs, Future Farmers of America, the ROTC, and co-op work programs—are all associated with lower admission odds.

Their book does not offer any explanation for the finding. In interviews with The Chronicle, the researchers pointed out that the types of activities they classified as "career-oriented" included Model United Nations, mock trial groups, and clubs for young entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, because their book left out those other activities and specifically cited the ROTC and farming-oriented organizations, it was seized upon as offering evidence that elite colleges are biased against applicants who love their country and come from the countryside. Although Espenshade and Radford did not examine the relative admissions prospects of students from different religious groups, their book also was cited as providing evidence that elite colleges discriminate against Christians.

Russell K. Neili, a lecturer in Princeton University's political science department, first argued the existence of such biases in a
July 12 essay on the Manhattan Institute's blog, Minding the Campus. As part of a broader critique of affirmative action, Neili's essay said No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal shows elite colleges are biased against participants in "Red State activities" in a way that is "truly shocking even to this hardened veteran of the campus ideological and cultural wars." The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat then spread the word with a July 18 New York Times essay titled "The Roots of White Anxiety." Patrick Buchanan got on board a day later with "Bias and Bigotry in Academia."

The columnists making such claims clearly touched a nerve. And, to be fair, Douthat was on to something in asserting that the political gap between the nation's elite and its working class is at least partly attributable to elite colleges' admission policies, and, in particular, the institutions' use of affirmative action. As Color and Money notes, many white people who lack the cash and connections to get their children an edge in elite college admissions perceive such institutions as biased against them. And, since the days of George Wallace, conservative politicians and pundits have been exploiting such suspicions by scapegoating affirmative-action preferences as the chief force keeping many white applicants out of elite colleges, even though such applicants are far more likely to lose their seat to an unqualified white kid who received favoritism than a minority beneficiary of racial or ethnic preferences. The writings of Neili, Douthat, and Buchanan--and the significant buzz they generated--can be seen as exhibit A in support of the argument, made in Color and Money and elsewhere, that support for affirmative action carries substantial political cost for liberals, making it harder for them to hold positions of power long and tackle the broader societal problems that leave many minority and lower-income students educationally disadvantaged.

Even if there was nothing in No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal to support it, the assertion that elite colleges are biased against Christians was not entirely off the mark. There are, in fact, some Christian religions whose members once faced bias in applying to elite colleges, in many cases because their religions are associated with certain ethnic groups that were the victims of bias. (Think Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics.) Up until about World War II, many of our nation's top colleges, especially those of the Ivy League, were dominated by old-money families that tended to be Congregationalist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, and, on a related note, could trace their lineage to northern European countries that played a key role in colonizing the United States, such as England and Holland. To retain their hold on America's top colleges, these populations persuaded the administrations of many such institutions to actively discriminate against certain populations--such as people who were Jewish, black, or Catholic--and in favor of certain populations with insider status, such as the children of alumni. Blatant anti-Semitism went out of fashion at such institutions after World War II. The civil rights movement, a desire to quell the rioting of the 60s, and corporate America's willingness to bestow money upon colleges that help diversify workforces all led to colleges to go from discriminating against black, Hispanic, and Native American applicants to actively favoring such populations in admission decisions. But legacy preferences and other policies that favored applicants with insider status remained largely in place, working to the benefit of those groups that had gotten through the door and the disadvantage of those groups that remained largely shut out. This--and the enormous correlation between wealth and preparation for college admissions--helps explain why some of the Christian populations that once dominated such institutions continue to account for a disproportionate share of their enrollments, while many of the Christian populations that historically were shut out of such institutions remain under-represented at them to this day. (For more on old-money Christian families, see this
article on the Social Register.)

The assertion that elite colleges are biased against politically conservative students provides interesting food for thought. Certainly, college faculties generally have been shown to a larger percentages of liberals and Democrats in their midst than American society in general. One can imagine your typical Ivy League admissions committee reacting coldly to an applicant who rejects the theory of evolution and thinks any gay professors or students on campus are bound for hell. But there is no research showing that politically conservative students are disadvantaged in the admissions process, and certainly no evidence of deliberate decisions by elite colleges to screen them out of the applicant pool. If one wants to use "red" state residency as a proxy for political conservatism, Espenshade and Radford's research actually might provide evidence of favoritism toward such students. They found that coming from such "red" states as Alabama, Montana, and Utah actually appears to give applicants to elite colleges an advantage, because such colleges receive relatively few applications from those states and like to boast that their entering freshman classes are so geographically diverse they represent every state in the union. Given, however, that it is entirely possible to find expensive private schools and liberal families in any state in the union, it seems like folly to assume an applicant's political leanings or socioeconomic backgrounds based on their state of residence.

Espenshade and Radford were able to clarify what their book said in radio interviews and in articles published in Newsweek , Time, and elsewhere. Douthat, to his credit, gave the two researchers an opportunity to respond in a
blog post. And a host of other bloggers jumped in to help set the record straight on what the research by Espenshade and Radford actually found.

Those seeking to refute Douthat, Neili, et. al. were themselves sometimes guilty of overreaching, however.

Take, for example, the
assertion by Monica Potts of the American Prospect that whites "have a large advantage over people of color in almost every way possible in every area of life, regardless of income." While race in itself plays a role in determining educational opportunity, and race and class status are often interrelated due to current discrimination and the residual effects of discrimination in the past, the truth is that socioeconomic status is a bigger shaper of educational destinies than race these days. Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, attempt to quantify the influences of race and class on one's college admissions prospects through research presented in the new book Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College. Their analysis found that being black, in itself, was associated with an average loss of 56 out of 1600 possible points on the combined verbal and math portions of the SAT. The gap between the poorest and wealthiest SAT takers, by contrast, was more than 780 points. Given such data, the notion that the child of two black Park Avenue physicians faces longer odds than a white child raised in Appalachian poverty is at least a little absurd.

More commonly, people have argued that low-income whites are under-represented at elite colleges simply because they are unqualified for admission or fail to apply. It certainly is true that many white people of modest means are not well prepared for elite colleges, and research has, indeed, shown that those who are prepared for admission to such colleges are less likely to apply to them than other students from wealthier backgrounds. But the research by Espenshade and Radford looked at students in the applicant pool and controlled for academic qualification in reaching the conclusion that low-income white students are less likely to gain admission. In focusing on low-income students who both applied and were qualified, they show the argument that such students are held back solely by a lack of initiative or academic ability to be both a lie and a slur.

Finally, several pundits made the argument that the entire debate over the influence of affirmative action and other preferences on elite college admissions is a distraction from the nation's real educational problems, the product of angst by a self-absorbed white upper-middle class. Heather Horn of The Atlantic offered a solid
roundup of essays making such arguments.

Polls discussed in Color and Money do, indeed, suggest that whites in the upper-middle-class are more preoccupied with elite college admissions, and more likely to oppose affirmative action, than white people who are flat-out wealthy or of modest means. And, indeed, there is no question that the nation has many other educational and social problems it can be focused on, and probably needs to tackle if it is to bring about major improvement in access to elite colleges for all segments of society.

Nevertheless, there are many, very good reasons why all Americans, and not just members of the upper-middle-class, should be worried about the lack of socioeconomic diversity in our top colleges. Here are just a few:

  • The lack of socioeconomic diversity at elite colleges and the nation's broader educational and social problems are interconnected. The former is caused largely the latter. It is entirely possible to be concerned about both issues, and we would do a lot to improve education broadly if we tried to ensure more young people from middle- or lower-income communities were prepared to go to top colleges.
  • Top colleges play a huge role in determining the composition of our nation's leadership class, and the vast majority of Americans who are not rich are poorly served by a leadership class whose members come from wealthy backgrounds, went to college insulated from the rest of society, and are completely out of touch with middle- and working-class America's concerns.
  • On a related note, shutting the non-wealthy out from elite colleges and the leadership class is a recipe for social unrest. Let us not forget that those who devised college affirmative-action preferences in the late 60s did so largely because a large number of the nation's cities were burning, and they believed that giving black Americans more access to elite colleges would send a signal to African Americans, generally, that they did not need to resort to rioting and other forms of violence to break down the barriers to their advancement.

On a final note, one has to wonder how many of the pundits who see no problem with the lack of socioeconomic diversity in elite colleges are themselves the products of such institutions, and have a self-interest in preserving admissions policies that worked in their favor and stand to favor their own children. Are they, perhaps, a little like the Wizard of Oz, in that they know recognize how much they stand to lose if others go snooping around behind the curtain surrounding elite college admissions, and see the mechanisms by which this nation's elite gains its power?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

New Research on Diversity Yields Surprising Findings

The success of minority college students and students' perceptions of race relations on their campuses are influenced by factors that actually have little direct connection with ethnicity or race, according to a new set of studies discussed in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article.

Among the studies, all published in the spring issue of New Directions for Institutional Research:

  • An analysis of University of California student survey data that concludes that students' choice of academic major plays a greater role than their race in determining how much discrimination they perceive on campus. Moreover, having large numbers of racially and culturally sensitive students might paradoxically cause a campus's reputation for tolerance to suffer, because such students are more likely to perceive and report bigotry around them.
  • Another study, unusual in that it focuses on a campus where white students are outnumbered, concluded that high minority enrollments do not necessarily lead to increased perceptions of tolerance. At the public university that the study focused on, the share of all students on the campus who reported occasionally or frequently witnessing one or more forms of insensitive behavior rose as the institution became more diverse, with the increase being driven partly by increases in both the number of minority students responding to the survey and in the share of minority students reporting such behavior.
  • A third study, examining the educational progress of freshmen at several institutions, concludes that first-generation college students experience some events on the campus differently than do other students. For example, they appear not to reap the same educational gains from out-of-classroom interactions with faculty members as do their peers with at least one college-educated parent, perhaps because the first-generation students may be somewhat rattled and put off by such interactions, which leave their peers feeling more intellectually engaged, the Chronicle article says.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ed Dept.'s Civil Rights Chief Signals New Approach to Race

The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is reviewing its approach to complaints of anti-Semitism and its guidance to colleges on race-conscious admission policies and gender equity in athletics, the office's chief, Russlynn H. Ali, told The Chronicle this month in an exclusive interview.

The Chronicle story also reports:

The Obama administration's intent to be much more supportive of race-conscious admissions than the Bush administration became clear last month, when top lawyers from the Education and Justice Departments joined in submitting a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the University of Texas at Austin in a lawsuit pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The brief reinforces the university's defense of its race-conscious admission policies.

Whereas the Bush administration had sided against the University of Michigan in a Supreme Court case challenging that institution's consideration of applicants' race, the brief the Obama administration lawyers filed last month strongly endorsed Texas's argument that only race-conscious admissions policies would provide it with sufficient levels of diversity to reap the educational benefits it sought.

"In view of the importance of diversity in educational institutions," the brief said, "the United States, through the Departments of Education and Justice, supports the efforts of school systems and postsecondary educational institutions that wish to develop admission polices that endeavor to achieve the educational benefits of diversity" in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling upholding Michigan's consideration of race.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Affirmative-Action Scholars Denied Access to California Bar Data

A California state judge has rejected a bid by two researchers examining affirmative action to gain access to California Bar Association data on the long-term success of law-school graduates.

As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow of the California Superior Court for San Francisco County ruled last month that the state bar is not legally obliged to release the data sought by Richard H. Sander, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Joe Hicks, a former governor of the California state bar. The judge held that the researchers' argument for access to the data under public-records laws relied on a definition of "public document" that was overly broad, and could be interpreted as covering judges' rough notes, grand-jury transcripts, and other documents that the courts have long held to be exempt.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March Madness Brings News of Widening Black-White Gap in Players' Graduation Rates

Although the black members of the basketball teams of colleges represented in the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament appear to be doing slightly better academically than they did in the past, the gap between their graduation rate and the graduation rate of white players on those teams has grown, according to a new report.

The report by the The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida says 84 percent of white and 56 percent of black basketball players at those colleges graduate--a 6 percentage-point increase for white basketball players and a 2 percentage-point increase for black players over last year's study.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Utah Drive for Preference Ban Stalls in Legislature

An effort to amend Utah's state constitution to ban the use of affirmative-action preferences by public colleges and state and local agencies has been put off a year after meeting resistance in the state legislature.

As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, the backers of the proposed amendment were just shy of getting enough legislative votes to put the measure on the ballot this fall. They needed 50 votes in the state House of Representatives, but, as a result of four Republicans representatives' refusal to join other GOP members in supporting the bill, they appeared to have just 49 votes locked down as lawmakers wrapped up their 2010 session..

Legislative leaders have agreed to study the issue, and it appears likely the measure will come up again next year.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Obama Administration Announces New Effort to Enforce Civil Rights in Education

As reported here in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Obama administration pledged this week to expand enforcement of civil-rights laws in education. At a press conference held in Selma, Ala., on the 45th anniversary of the historic civil-rights march there, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights "has not been as vigilant as it should have been" over the past decade, and plans to undertake investigations at six colleges and 30 school districts to determine whether they are complying with the law.

The assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn H. Ali, angered conservatives by saying the department would start using "disparate-impact" analysis, which attempts to prove discrimination not through direct evidence of racist acts, but through numerical data showing that policies have a disproportionate impact on certain groups of people. The approach is controversial because numerical gaps in educational participation often can be linked to factors other than deliberate discrimination, such as gaps in educational preparation linked to culture, immigrant status, or socioeconomic class.

The U.S. Supreme Court barred the use of disparate-impact analysis as the basis of private lawsuits against federally supported state agencies in a 2001 decision. The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, said the civil-rights law at issue in the case, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, does not specifically give private citizens the right to sue to ensure that its provisions are enforced. As discussed at length in Color and Money, the Clinton administration came under intense criticism for--and eventually abandoned--proposed regulations warning college admissions offices not to rely too heavily on standardized tests that were thought to be biased against minority students or women based on disparate-impact analysis.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

California Preference Ban Challenged in Bid to Thwart Similar Measures

An activist group has filed a federal lawsuit challenging California's Proposition 209 ban on affirmative-action preferences in a bid to keep similar measures from being passed elsewhere.

As reportered by Color and Money author Peter Schmidt in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the lawsuit argues that the California measure, adopted by that state's voters in 1996, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by placing a distinct set of legal hurdles in front of minority groups seeking to increase their representation on the university system's campuses. The group behind the lawsuit--the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary--is seeking through the lawsuit not just to get the California measure overturned, but to raise questions about the legality of similar measures that will be on the ballot in Arizona, and perhaps Utah, this fall.

A similar legal challenge to Proposition 209 failed in 1997, but the lawyers behind the new lawsuit say the legal landscape has changed enough since then that they feel they have a good chance of prevailing this time around.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sandra Day O'Connor Accused of Hedging on Her Grutter Decision

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark 2003 decision upholding race-conscious college admissions as constitutional, the controlling opinion said that the educational benefits of diversity had been proven by research but the majority of justices did not think colleges would need to use racial preferences to achieve diverse enrollments 25 years down the road.

In a new essay discussed here in The Chronicle of Higher Education, retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor revisits the majority opinion she wrote in that case, Grutter v. Bollinger, involving the University of Michigan's Law School. What she has to say in her new essay has stirred anger in many of the critics of affirmative action who lamented the Grutter decision. She seems both to characterize the research underlying the majority opinion as "speculative" and to say that the court really did not mean anything with its talk of racial preferences ending a quarter century down the road.

Lawyers on all side of the affirmative action debate stress that it is the court's opinion itself, and not the subsequent musings of a retired justice, that will serve as precedent for the lower courts and likely help shape any later Supreme Court discussions of the issue. Still, the exact meaning of Supreme Court rulings often is hotly debated in subsequent legal battles, as evident when the justices hearing the Grutter case sparred over the exact meaning of the majority opinion that Justice Lewis Powell wrote the last time the high court considered such admissions preferences, in the Bakke decision of 1978. Justice O'Connor's new essay makes the meaning of two elements of her 2003 opinion seem a lot more ambiguous than had widely been assumed.

The Chronicle article, available to nonsubscribers, offers more on her essay and the reactions it has stirred.

Monday, December 21, 2009

U. of Minnesota Remains Under Fire for Plan to Promote Sensitivity Among Teachers

The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities has come under heavy fire from conservative pundits and a prominent free-speech advocacy group over a task force's plan to ensure that graduates of its teacher training program are culturally sensitive.

As reported in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, the plan by a faculty panel called the Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group is chock full of language that pushes conservative buttons, including a call for prospective teachers to"be able to discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression."

Some of its critics have themselves turned to fairly strong language, with one local radio host alleging that the education school is "one step away from advocating gas chambers for conservatives." Using much more measured language, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has said the changes called for by the plan would violate the U.S. Constitution by imposing ideological requirements on students at the education school.

Jean K. Quam, dean of the university's College of Education and Human Development, has stressed that the plan simply represents a set of ideas that the university has yet to act upon. Its basic goal, she says, is simply to ensure that tomorrow's teachers are equipped to handle the many forms of diversity they are likely to encounter in classrooms.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Federal Appeals Court Hears Challenge to Affirmative Action Preference Bans

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit heard oral arguments last month in a legal challenge to the ban on affirmative-action preferences adopted by Michigan voters in 2006.

The case involves two lawsuits that have been consolidated into one. One of the two was filed on behalf of students, faculty members, and prospective applicants to Michigan's public universities, with the plaintiffs' legal team including lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Detroit branch of the NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The other lawsuit was brought by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary, an activist group, known as BAMN, that played a significant role in fighting both Michigan's Proposal 2 and California's Proposition 209.

As discussed in depth here in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the plaintiffs appear to stand a good chance of success, at least initially. Two of the three judges handling the case at this level--Ransey Guy Cole Jr. and Martha Craig Daughtrey--are nominees of President Bill Clinton who have liberal reputations and were members of the Sixth Circuit majority that upheld the Michigan law school's policies in Grutter. The third member of the panel, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, was nominated by President George W. Bush but has a reputation as one of the court's more moderate Republican nominees.

How the plaintiffs will fare in the long run is another matter. Regardless of how it rules, the three-judge panel's decision is almost certain to be appealed to the full Sixth Circuit, whose membership tilts conservative.

Both of the joined lawsuits argue that the Michigan measure discriminates against minorities by leaving them uniquely burdened in the political process. While other Michigan constituencies, such as Upper Peninsula residents, can seek greater access to universities by merely appealing to officials of those institutions to favor them, minority residents who seek the reinstatement of race-conscious admissions policies to gain greater access must first pull off the difficult feat of getting voters in that predominantly white state to repeal its preference ban.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Naval Academy Accused of Illegally Retaliating Against Affirmative Action Critic

As reported at length today in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the U.S. Naval Academy has been accused by one of its professors of illegally retaliating against him for publicly alleging its affirmative-action policies violate the law.

Bruce E. Fleming, a civilian who works at the academy as a professor of English, says he has filed a federal whistleblower complaint alleging that top administrators there denied him a deserved merit-pay raise in retaliation for his criticisms of the institution's minority admissions policies. Mr. Fleming drew widespread media attention after arguing in an editorial published in a local newspaper that the academy essentially operates a separate, less-demanding admissions track for minority applicants, in violation of legal guidelines set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mr. Fleming's complaint he was not given a deserved raise is not simply a matter of having a different subjective asssessment than top academy officials of his worth. He is claiming that his colleagues and department chair recommended him for a substantial raise, and higher-ups disregarded normal procedures--and his solid performance review and high performance ranking among his colleagues--to avoid giving him any raise at all.

The Naval Academy, which has denied Mr. Fleming's past criticisms of its admissions policies, is not commenting on his allegations of retaliation, saying that as a matter of policy it does not discuss such personnel matters.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Plaintiffs in Lawsuit Against U. of Texas Take Their Case to the Fifth Circuit

The plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the revival of race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin have taken their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

A terse formal notice of appeal filed in the Fifth Circuit Court this month says simply that the two plaintiffs--white students that the university had rejected--are appealing the August 17 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks to throw out their challenge to the university's admissions policy. Lawyers for the two students are expected to file briefs giving their reasoning for the appeal in the coming weeks.

As discussed in greater depth in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Judge Sparks held in his August 17 ruling that he was dismissing the lawsuit because the university's race-conscious policy was narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest, and therefore constitutional. The lawsuit argues that the university should not be allowed to return to considering applicants' race because it already has in place a race-neutral means of achieving diversity on campus, a requirement under state law that it admit any Texas student in the top 10 percent of his or her high school class.

Lawyers for the students had been characterizing Judge Sparks as unfriendly to their side since May of 2008, when he refused to order the university to re-evaluate the two students' application in a race-neutral manner based on his belief that they had little chance of prevailing. The Fifth Circuit appeals court, by contrast, in 1996 issued one of the harshest judicial denunciations of race-conscious admissions produced by a federal court so far, its Hopwood decision striking down race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas law school with language repudiating the idea that such admissions were constitutionally justified by the diversity they produced. As recounted in detail in Color and Money, Texas lawmakers adopted the 10-percent law in response to the Hopwood ruling, which was subsequently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 Grutter decision upholding the diversity rationale for such policies (but holding that race-neutral alternatives must be considered.)

The so-called "Texas Ten Percent Law" was watered down somewhat in May, when state lawmakers voted to cap the number of students automatically admitted to UT-Austin under it at 75 percent of each entering freshman class. If the challenge to race-conscious admissions prevails, state lawmakers will likely come under renewed pressure to preserve the 10-percent law. That measure is widely supported by many black, Hispanic, and rural legislators, but it is strongly opposed by many representatives of wealthy suburbs where competition from others from privileged backgrounds makes it harder for students to rank in the top tenth of their classes.

Monday, July 27, 2009

New Study Appears Likely to Complicate the Debate Over Legacy Admissions

A new study of alumni of a selective research university concludes that families can feel inclined to donate to such institutions for reasons that extend well beyond simply trying to increase the likelihood of their children getting in.

Having a child approaching college age does appear to make alumni predisposed toward generosity toward their alma maters: The probability of alumni's making gifts increased by 12.9 percentage points if a child of theirs attended, and those gifts were about 48 percent larger than the ones given by alumni without family connections.

But other family ties also appeared to influence giving, in ways that could not easily be attributed to a desire to secure an applicant an advantage. Having a parent, aunt or uncle, or mother-in-law or father-in-law who graduated from the same institution all appeared to make alumni significantly more likely to donate, and those with a sibling who attended the same college, while no more likely than others to donate, tended on average donate more.

See the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site for a full summary of the study by Jonathan Meer, a Stanford University doctoral student who recently accepted a position as an assistant professor of economics at Texas A&M University at College Station, and Harvey S. Rosen, a professor of economics and business policy at Princeton University and co-director of Princeton's Center for Economic Policy Studies.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Arizona to Vote on a Ban on Affirmative-Action Preferences in 2010

Arizona lawmakers have agreed to put a proposed constitutional amendment curtailing the use of affirmative-action preferences on the ballot next year.

With the state legislature's decision last month to put the measure before voters, Arizona becomes the first state to have such a measure put on the ballot through legislative action rather than a citizen petition drive. The campaign on behalf of the measure had tried using the petition-gathering route to put it before voters last November, but they failed to gather enough signatures by a state-imposed deadline.

The Arizona referendum calls for the state Constitution to be amended to ban public colleges and other state and local agencies from granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in employment, contracting, and education-related decisions. It is very similar in its wording to the measures that have been adopted by California, Michigan, Nebraska, and Washington State and to a measure which failed narrowly in Colorado last fall.

Many political analysts believe the Arizona measure should pass easily, especially given that state's fairly conservative political climate and tensions there over immigration.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

U. of Illinois Takes Heat for Lowering the Bar for Applicants with Clout

Officials at the University of Illinois are scrambling to deal with the fallout from a series of Chicago Tribune articles exposing how the institution maintained a "shadow admissions system" opening its doors to subpar applicants backed by lawmakers and university trustees.

As the book Color and Money makes clear, the University of Illinois is hardly alone in systematically lowering the bar on behalf of applicants with political connections. College lobbyists in state capitals say they must routinely accept requests to grease the skids for certain applicants from the state lawmakers that their institutions rely on for funds. College lobbyists in Washington similarly field requests from members of Congress to help applicants who might not gain admission on their own.

Two of the university administrators who oversaw the admissions practices examined in the Tribune investigation--the current president of the University of Illinois, B. Joseph White, and the former chancellor of university's Champaign-Urbana campus, Nancy Cantor--had maintained a similar mechanism for helping favored applicants circumvent merit-based admissions in their previous positions at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Under the point-based undergraduate admissions system ultimately rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2003 Gratz v. Bollinger decision, Michigan reserved the right to award any applicant a 20-point bonus--the equivalent of the different between a 3.0 GPA and a 4.0 GPA--on its 150-point scale. No formal justification for the bonus awards was given.

The Chicago Tribune first exposed clout-based admissions at the University of Illinois in an article published May 29. That article, based on an examination of university records obtained through the state's Freedom of Information Act, described how the university classified applicants with the backing of powerful people as "Category I," and admitted some of the objections of its own admissions officers while quietly reversing the rejections of others.

In summarizing its key findings, the newspaper said:

--University officials recognized that certain students were underqualified--but admitted them anyway.
--Admissions officers complained in vain as their recommendations were overruled.
--Trustees pushed for preferred students, some of whom were friends, neighbors and relatives.
--Lawmakers delivered admission requests to U. of I. lobbyists, whose jobs depend on pleasing the lawmakers.
--University officials delayed admissions notifications to weak candidates until the end of the school year to minimize the fallout at top feeder high schools.

The article noted that about half of this year's 160 Category I applicants have ties to state lawmakers, and "a 2009 log managed by the university's government affairs office tracked nearly 80 applicants pushed by politicians."

Accompanying the article were internal university e-mails revealing that administrators regarded many of the applicants they were admitting as well below par, and that the university's law school also admitted subpar applicants with clout. Among the undergraduate applicants who had rejections reversed was a relative of convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko whose case was championed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

In a separate article published on May 31, the Tribune described how former governors Blagojevich and James Thompson leaned on gubernatorially appointed trustees to get applicants admitted. A related May 31 article describing the mechanisms through which politicians got applicants admitted tells of "an ongoing power struggle between educators who want to protect the integrity of the state's most prestigious public university and administrators who also feel compelled to appease powerful lawmakers."

University officials initially downplayed the role that the so-called "clout list" played in admissions. In the face of widespread outrage, however, they quickly pledged to clean up the process. On June 1 the university told the newspaper it was suspending the use of a clout list in the admissions process and setting up a task force to find ways to rid the admissions process of undue political influence.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Peter Schmidt's AlterNet Essay--and His Response to Its Critics

From Peter Schmidt:

On Saturday, May 23, the Web site AlterNet published an essay in which I argued that selective colleges bear some responsibility for our current economic crisis because their admissions policies reward and encourage unethical behavior and their graduates account for a disproportionate share of those in positions of economic or political power. The essay was widely e-mailed and republished and generated a lot of discussion on the Internet. The responses to it included amens and applause, ad hominem attacks on me and my educational background by people who know little about me and absolutely nothing about my educational background, and critiques that, in some cases, were thoughtful.

The ad hominem attacks don't deserve a response other than to say it is sad to see people who claim Ivy League degrees or positions as tenured professors incapable of coming up with anything better.

Common courtesy demands that I give those who applauded my essay my thanks.

The criticisms that I found relevant and at least somewhat worth taking seriously deserve an answer. The AlterNet piece is reprinted immediately below, and my response to its critics follows.

Elite Colleges Are Promoting a Culture of Selfish, Cutthroat Behavior and We Are All Paying the Price

By Peter Schmidt
Like many of us, the nation's elite colleges and universities have taken a financial beating over the past year.

Among them, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford all watched their endowments shrink by about 20 percent as a result of investment losses.

Despite all their brainpower, such institutions appear to have failed to learn what every simple farmer knows: you reap what you sow. Elite colleges and professional schools bear a share of the blame for the economic crisis that now plagues them, because it is they who educated and bestowed academic credentials upon many of those who got us into this mess.

It should come as no surprise to them that many on Wall Street and in Washington have proven ethically bankrupt and without regard for people of lesser means, because their admissions policies have done much to ensure such a result.

In determining which applicants they will admit and put on the fast track, most elite higher-education institutions systematically favor people from privileged backgrounds who display selfish, cutthroat behavior. The results are campus environments where disregard for society is socially accepted, where bad people are encouraged to become worse.

Consider, for starters, how most such institutions rely on standardized admissions tests such as the SAT, even though they know perfectly well that the nation's massive test-preparation industry has severely compromised the reliability of such instruments, turning them into tools for measuring, as much as anything, wealth and willingness to seek unfair advantage.

Test-preparation programs make people better test-takers not better prospective students. They raise scores mainly by teaching various test-taking tricks, such as how to quickly spot the "sucker" answers to a multiple-choice question to improve the odds of guessing correctly. Yet many are effective enough to offer those families that can afford their fees -- typically, $500 to $1,000 -- a chance to buy their children enough extra points to transform many from also-rans into shoo-ins.

In turning a blind eye to the widespread tainting of admissions test scores, higher-education institutions argue that they lack better mechanisms for efficiently judging applicants from high schools of sharply varying quality. But many education researchers disagree and say some alternatives to such tests, such as admissions systems that give substantial weight to class rank or samples of each applicant's work, are more reliable predictors of applicants' academic performance.

Moreover, selective colleges have ulterior motives for relying on standardized admissions tests that have nothing to do with academic considerations and everything to do with their bottom lines. The more high-scoring students they admit, the higher their "selectivity" ratings in the college-ranking guides that help determine how many applicants knock on their doors each year. And not only is sifting through applications based on test scores a lot cheaper than hiring enough people to consider each candidate carefully, but relying on such scores helps skew the process in favor of wealthier applicants, who will not need financial assistance and are likely to donate generously down the road.

If young people find that artificially inflating their test scores isn't enough to get them into a choice college, they always have the option of having someone bribe their way in with a big donation.

Selective colleges are so happy to have their palms greased in such a manner that some make little effort to hide how much they lower the bar for applicants connected to generous alumni and other contributors. To improve their odds of having favors done for them by people in positions of power, many selective higher-education institutions also admit mediocre applicants at the request of state and federal officials.

They let their professors and administrators in on the game by lowering the bar for the children of employees, as a job perk. Despite all of their talk about operating athletics programs to promote sportsmanship, they assure recruited athletes the playing field will be tilted in their favor in the competition for freshman-class seats.

Through such admissions policies, colleges end up giving the nation's high school students crash courses in cynicism. They teach young people that money talks, fairness is for losers, who you know matters more than what you know, and some people are simply entitled to what others may never attain, no matter how hard they work.

Considering how much selective colleges and universities favor applicants who take such lessons to heart, should it surprise anyone that about half of all graduate- and professional-school students admit on surveys to having recently cheated?

Investors take note: MBA candidates have been found to be the biggest cheaters of all, with 56 percent admitting to having cheated in the past year, in a 2006 survey published by the Academy of Management Learning and Education. Many business schools have responded to the latest economic crisis by broadcasting their intent to beef up their ethics classes, but they might as well be promoting sobriety in a bar.

Give George W. Bush credit for this much: He admits to having gotten into Yale through his family connections, and he is quite capable of self-effacing humor. In delivering Yale's 2001 commencement address, he declared: "And to the C students I say, You, too, can be president of the United States."

Although he meant the remark as a joke, he stood as living proof that he was absolutely right, that students who have gotten through the doors of a top college need not perform well there to have other doors opened to them.

Historians of education say the Great Depression shook the nation's faith in its leadership and helped inspire many selective colleges to reform their admissions policies to do more to take in the best students and not just the best-connected.

Our latest economic crisis could inspire similar soul-searching and a renewed emphasis on meritocracy in higher education. But it also could have the opposite effect, prompting selective colleges and universities to even more heavily favor those applicants with cash and connections in an effort to repair their own finances.

If the recent devastation of their endowments should teach such institutions anything, it is that basing their admissions policies on the short-term pursuit of monetary gain is likely to cost them -- and the rest of American society -- dearly down the road.

So far, at least, the more serious critiques of the essay have taken one of four forms: 1) assertions that it places too much faith in meritocracy 2) complaints that it paints elite colleges and their students with too broad a brush 3) allegations of faulty logic 4) allegations that it makes assertions based on no evidence. I'll pick them off here one by one. (Full disclosure: I'll get a marginal commission from Amazon every time you buy a book through one of the links I provide below.)

Re: the assertion the essay places too much faith in meritocracy

I take this criticism more to heart than any. I'm a huge fan of Michael Young's landmark satirical essay, The Rise of the Meritocracy, which makes abundantly clear how a society ruled by those considered "the best"--and therefore confident of their superiority--could indeed be a very brutal place. I'm also well aware that most definitions of "academic merit" in college admissions also tend to be measures of economic and cultural advantage and, in some cases, the willingness of parents to give their children an edge by any means necessary--basic fairness and the good of society be damned. (The second chapter of my book gives a thorough overview of research on this topic.)

But I fail to see how admissions decisions based solely on academic merit would be worse for society than admissions practices that suspend considerations of academic merit in the case of people who have displayed unethical behavior. With a merit-only approach, you get some mixture of people who are smart/essentially decent and people who are smart/unethical and, if Young is right, run the risk of everyone involved being corrupted by belief in their own superiority. With our current admissions policies, you have people who are dim/unethical bumping the smart and ethical out of seats in freshmen classes, thereby enlarging the unethical population on campuses and reducing the enrollments of smart/ethical people who might go on to help hold the unethical in check. Meanwhile, the colleges insist everyone on their campus actually belongs there based on merit, so the perceptions of superiority that Young worries about exist anyway.

It's entirely possible that society may be well-served by selective colleges bending or expanding their definitions of academic merit to accommodate certain populations, such as people who have some unusual talent not measured by traditional academic criteria or people who have done remarkably well given their life circumstances. But I'm not sure I see much societal interest in bending or expanding definitions of merit to accommodate people who pull strings, offer bribes, or might perform well enough on the athletic field to help sell stadium seats. Selective colleges often argue that the money derived through such practices can help fund scholarships for the needy, but I am hard-pressed to think of another American institution that tries to justify accepting bribes or giving in to undue political influence on the grounds that whatever it gains by doing so it uses for some societal good.

Re: complaints that the essay paints elite colleges and their students with too broad a brush

Any careful reader will see that the essay does not argue that all students at elite colleges engage in selfish, cutthroat behavior or that all elite colleges engage in every admissions practice cited as favoring the ethically challenged. To suggest otherwise is to construct a straw man. Plenty of elite college students and graduates who profess idealism and concern for the best interests of society have agreed with my characterization of many students on such campuses without taking my essay the least bit personally.

Critics of the essay likewise themselves grasp at too broad a brush in asserting that I argue that all political leaders or business people responsible for our current economic crisis came out of elite colleges. I simply don't.

Based on research to be discussed later in this blog entry, I will say this much, though: Elite higher education institutions credentialed a disproportionate share of the political leaders and business people responsible for our current economic crisis. Nearly all selective colleges engage in at least a few of the admissions practices my essay describes. And the population of selfish, cutthroat, entitled students found on most such campuses is large to provide considerable social support for such thinking and behavior.

Re: allegations of faulty logic

Every allegation of faulty logic so far directed at this piece has been based on straw men constructed by misconstruing my statements. For example, people have claimed the essay argues that all unethical people come out of elite colleges and therefore everyone enrolled at an elite college is unethical. That's nonsense.

At the core of my essay is a sound deductive argument. It goes like this:

Premise 1 (based on extensive research): Elite higher education institutions educate and credential a disproportionate share of our society's leaders and influence even those who do not pass through their doors.

Premise 2 (also based on extensive research): Many of the admissions practices of elite higher education institutions favor applicants based on displays of unethical behavior and send the clear message that those institutions regard at least some unethical behavior as acceptable.

Conclusion: Elite higher education institutions therefore bear some responsibility for the presence of unethical people in our society's leadership positions.

Re: allegations that the essay makes assertions based on no evidence

I'll acknowledge offhand that the essay makes several assertions without expressly citing the research and data they are based on.

This was partly a function of necessity. The article was a journalistic op-ed, not a book or submission to an academic journal. It is a roughly 1,000-word essay in a world where many newspapers and magazines will not print essays over 600 words. Buttressing every assertion with a full discussion of its factual basis likely would have caused the essay to grow to 5,000 words or more, making it unpublishable and damn near unreadable.

For the record, however, every single assertion in the essay is fully supported by extensive research, much of it discussed in the book Color and Money and on this Web site.

Here's a breakdown of how the essay's key assertions are backed:

The assertion that elite colleges train a disproportionate share of people in positions of economic or political power is supported by several books, studies, and legal documents cited in Color and Money, including:

Michael Useem and Jerome Karabel, “Pathways to Top Corporate Management,” 175–207; Charles L. Cappell and Ronald M. Pipkin, “The Inside Tracks: Status Distinctions in Allocations to Elite Law Schools,” 211–30; both in The High Status Track: Studies of Elite Schools and Stratification (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990)

Paul W. Kingston and John C. Smart, “The Economic Pay-Off of Prestigious Colleges,” in The High Status Track

Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose, “Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Selective College Admissions,” in America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, ed. Richard D. Kahlenberg (New York: Century Foundation, 2003).

Briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court by a long list of top corporations, business and professional associations, and retired military leaders in the cases Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger.

(To update one set of figures given in my book, it is worth nothing that seven of the 19 presidents inaugurated since 1900 earned their bachelor’s degrees from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, and all but three attended prestigious colleges or professional schools.)

My assertions regarding selective colleges disproportionately serving students from privileged backgrounds are supported by extensive reporting for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Carnevale and Rose study cited above, and several reports and books cited in the Chapter 1 of Color and Money, including:

Douglas S. Massey, Camille Z. Charles, Garvey F. Lundy, and Mary J. Fischer. The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003)

Danette Gerald and Kati Haycock, Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities (Washington, DC: Education Trust, 2006).

My assertions regarding student attitudes at selective higher education institutions are supported by extensive reporting by me and other Chronicle reporters, The Source of the River (cited above), several studies cited in Chapter 5 of Color and Money, and by research conducted for the Center for Academic Integrity.

My assertions regarding selective colleges' reliance on the SAT are backed by extensive Chronicle reporting, research presented at the American Educational Research Association's 2008 annual conference, a recent National Association of College Admissions Conference report, and the following authoritative history of the SAT test:

Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999)

Lemann's book also includes a discussion of the SAT test preparation industry and its impact on scores. For more information on that subject, see David Owen's book None of the Above.

My characterizations of selective college admissions policies are backed by extensive Chronicle reporting and nearly all of the studies and books cited in Chapter 1 of Color and Money (see the links under "Chapter 1" on the right side of the screen). Perhaps the best recent work examining how people use cash and connections to get into specific elite colleges was done by Dan Golden, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, for the Wall Street Journal and the book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges, and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, has co-authored several exhaustive studies of the impact of various admissions preferences. They include:

William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005).

William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

The research cited above provides just a smattering of the data supporting the AlterNet essay's assertions, which rest on a wide body of empirical data gathered in recent decades. Those interested in locating more can find it by surfing around this Web site.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New Report on SAT Test Prep's Effects Is: A) Flawed B) Suspect C) Damning D) All of the Above

A new report on programs that prepare students for college entrance examinations has garnered a lot of attention in the media for two key reasons: It concludes that commercial SAT test preparation programs really don't raise scores all that much, and it finds that many colleges--against the advice of the testing companies and many experts in the college admissions field--are giving substantial weight to small score differences, with some even using certain scores as a cutoff in processing applications.

Colleges themselves might want to ask next year's applicants to download a copy of the report and write an essay responding to it. What conclusions the applicants draw will say a lot about their critical thinking skills. If an applicant wholeheartedly accept its assertion that the average SAT gains derived from enrolling in commercial test preparation programs likely are "in the neighborhood of 30 points," perhaps an elite college is not the best fit for him, and he would be better off somewhere close to home, maybe within bicycling distance.

The author of the report is Derek C. Briggs, an associate professor of quantitative methods and policy analysis at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the chairman of the university's Research and Evaluation Methodology Program. The report was commissioned by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a Virginia-based organization representing high school counselors, for-profit college counseling providers, and college employees involved in admissions and financial-aid decisions. The association tacked onto the report's cover the caveat that its conclusions are Mr. Briggs' own, but it nonetheless has publicized the report as part of NACAC's efforts to advance "the knowledge base and dialogue about test preparation."

The NACAC press release announcing the report declares: "Report Highlights Test Prep Paradox—Paying for Test Prep Doesn’t Yield Big Returns, But Returns May Still Matter in Light of Admission Practice." Among the major media outlets which ran with the "no big return" assertion were the Washington Post (headline: "Study Sees Small Average Gains from College Test Coaching") and the Wall Street Journal (headline: "SAT Coaching Found to Boost Scores--Barely").

Briggs concludes that SAT test preparation increases scores on the math portion of the test by just 10 to 20 points, and on the verbal portion of the test by just 5 to 10 points. He does not base that conclusion on any new research, but on a review of a tall stack of past studies of the impact of test coaching. Actually, to be precise, he bases his conclusion on just three studies in the stack. He discounted the rest--some of which found score increases from coaching of 100 points or more--as based on small samples that were not representative of the nation's population or as otherwise methodologically flawed.

Two of the three studies that Derek C. Briggs characterizes as valid and pointing to "a consensus position" on the effects of SAT test coaching were performed by none other than Derek C. Briggs. (If his name is otherwise recognizable to people in the field, it is because, far from being a neutral arbiter of such research, he already has established himself as a prominent critic of the idea that SAT coaching works.) Briggs not only put himself in a position to pass judgment on his own research and (surprise surprise) declared his own work rock solid, but he also has declared a consensus based on me-myself-and-I vote counting. The third study that he counts toward that consensus, by Donald Rock and Donald Powers, unsurprisingly reaches the same conclusion he had.

About that only other study in the stack that Briggs found methodologically acceptable: It was sponsored by two organizations which are highly invested, financially and otherwise, in the idea that SAT scores cannot be raised significantly by coaching--the College Board, which owns the SAT, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers it. Powers was a principle research scientist at ETS, and, as the book Color and Money shows, both ETS and the College Board have a history of promoting research that makes their case and squelching research that doesn't.

Powers and Rock identified those students who had received SAT test coaching based on whether the students owned up to it in response to a questionnaire on ETS letterhead sent to them after they had taken the SAT and before they got their scores back. Based on their choice of methodology, one wonders if they would have published a study concluding that married men seldom cheat based on a surveys administered to husbands by wives with revolvers in their hands. As Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for the watchdog group FairTest, noted in an e-mail:

"The notion that students would respond accurately to a testing company's questionnaire asking whether they had been coaching, especially during the period after they had taken the exam and before scores were reported, is ludicrous. At a minimum, they would wonder how that information would be used. Given fears about the secrecy with which ETS/College Board handle data, might have even believed that ETS could 'flag' scores being sent to colleges to indicate that an applicant had been coached, just as they then did for tests taken with extended time."

To his credit, Briggs acknowledges--albeit in a subtle, after-the-fact sort of way--that the three studies he cites, in talking about the average gains derived from SAT coaching by nationwide samples of students of all backgrounds, mask differences in the effectiveness of programs based on their quality, setting, and duration. He also acknowledges the two cited studies of his own that he cites "suggest that coaching is more effective for students with strong academic backgrounds and high economic status who underperformed on the PSAT."

The implications of this concession are huge. His new report, and the hype surrounding it, are wrongly leading the nation to believe that high-priced SAT test preparation services do not substantially raise the scores of students who participate in them in earnest, when, in fact, the average gains produced by some coaching services quite possibly may be the 100 points or more that other studies have claimed. The "average gains" Briggs' report cites are based on studies that included slackers who dropped out of coaching programs or repeatedly skipped sessions or screwed around and paid no attention to their instructors at all, as well as people who enrolled in ineffective, disreputable programs. If one wants to determine how much weight people lose on Weight Watchers, one should base that study on the weight changes of people who enrolled in Weight Watchers and took it seriously, not on the entire universe of people who have ever declared they are going on a diet and, in some cases, sat down to wolf down that "one last piece of pie."

The idea that families should not waste their money on coaching programs that won't raise scores is a perfectly fine one to get out. But, while NACAC may be well-intentioned in trying especially hard this week to get word out to families who are low- or middle-income (and presumably don't have money to spare), one wonders if the group will be contributing to class-linked gaps in access to selective higher education by so targetting its message. After all, its report, read carefully, suggests the rich might in fact be wise to enroll their children in reputable programs costing $1,000 or more, because such programs are likely to produce gains that will make a difference in the admissions office. SAT coaching already is giving the children of the wealthy enough of an unfair edge in getting into top colleges without broadcasting the message that those of lesser means should not bothering trying to put their children on equal footing.

The results of a survey of colleges contained in the new NACAC report makes clear that, even if the gains derived from test coaching are only in the neighborhood of 30 points on a 1600 point scale, those 30 points can make a lot of difference at some colleges and among students who were high scorers to begin with. Of colleges that use the SAT in evaluating applicants, 21 percent have a rigid cut-off scores. And, at the upper end of the SAT score range, well over a third of colleges said a 20 point increase in an applicant's SAT math score or a 10 point increase in an applicant's SAT verbal score would "significantly improve" their likelihood of gaining admission. Although NACAC and the College Board have advised colleges against giving small differences in SAT scores much weight in admissions decisions, their admonitions appear to be falling against deaf ears. Why? Relying heavily on SAT scores offers selective colleges an inexpensive way to sort through an annual barrage of applications. Taking in high scorers helps colleges boost their rankings in U.S. News and World Report and other college guides. And colleges have an additional, and powerful, financial incentive to depend heavily on the SAT, in that the strong correlation between SAT scores and family wealth means that high scorers are more likely than other applicants to get through college without needing financial aid and to donate generously to their alma maters down the road.

The problem with nearly all research on SAT preparation is that it is hard to find a disinterested party to do it. The College Board and ETS, which make huge sums of money off administering the SAT, know that its very existence is threatened by research showing that the test can be beaten by coaching. The test preparation industry has a financial incentive to argue the SAT can in fact be beaten by coaching and their services will give college applicants a big bounce in their scores. Selective colleges--and the members of organizations like NACAC--have incentives, financial and otherwise, to keep the test around. Advocates of low-income minority students see the SAT as a screening device that favors the white and wealthy, even without SAT coaching being factored into the equation.

It is possible to construct an experiment empirically measuring whether SAT coaching works. Doing so would require randomly assigning students to experimental and control groups and comparing test-to-test changes in the scores of those who had gone through coaching and those who had not. Unfortunately, no such experiment has yet been performed, leaving the nation's parents having to base their decisions on advertisements by test-preparation companies and "research" that may be no more trustworthy.

UPDATE: Bob Schaeffer of FairTest points out that a study involving experimental and control groups of students actually was done back in 1988. It was for a Ph.D. dissertation, and, although it had a fairly small sample, the fact a doctoral student pulled it off suggests the possibility of conducting other such studies on a broader scale. A link to it is here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Study Finds the Brightest and Wealthiest Increasing Concentrated at Top Colleges

Research findings presented last month show that intensifying competition for admission to selective colleges has led to a rising concentration of top students at such institutions.

As discussed in depth in an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education news blog, the new study, presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, found that students who are high achievers or from high-income families have become scarcer at two-year colleges and noncompetitive four-year institutions in recent decades as they have focused their attention on getting into the best colleges possible.

Michael N. Bastedo, an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Ozan Jaquette, a doctoral candidate at Michigan, based their analysis on data from three nationally representative, long-term surveys: the High School and Beyond Survey of 1980, the National Educational Longitudinal Survey of 1988, and the Educational Longitudinal Survey of 2002. They focused on students who completed high school in 1972, 1982, 1992, and 2004, analyzing changes over time in the relationship between socioeconomic stratification, precollege academic preparation, and the colleges where students end up.

The researchers’ analysis was rooted in “signaling” theory, which holds that education credentials distinguish their holders from competitors for jobs, and the value of a credential is inversely related to the proportion of job applicants possessing it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How Researchers Classify Biracial Subjects Skews Study Results

The manner in which researchers classify biracial subjects can seriously skew their results, according to a study presented last month at the American Educational Research Association's annual conference and discussed in depth in a Chronicle of Higher Education article.

The authors of the study are Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, an associate professor of college-student personnel at the University of Maryland at College Park; Matthew Soldner, a doctoral student at Maryland; and Katalin Szelényi, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. They conducted their analysis using data on more than 22,000 undergraduate students at 49 colleges gathered as part of the 2007 National Study of Living-Learning Programs, which uses a survey instrument that lets students identify with as many races and ethnicities as they please.

The researchers crunched their numbers using three commonly used approaches to classifying biracial and multiracial students.With one approach, they classified subjects who belong to two or more racial or ethnic groups as simply being “biracial” or “multiracial.” With a second approach, subjects who identity with two groups are classified as belonging to the least prevalent one, so that a student who reports being both white and black is designated as black.

Under a third approach, used by the federal Office of Management and Budget, they gave biracial research subjects dual classifications reflecting their backgrounds, such as “white-black” or “white-Hispanic.” For the sake of keeping the number of categories manageable, they disregarded data from any biracial subset that accounts for less than 1 percent of the total sample studied, with the result being that all dual classifications that did not have "white" on one side of the hyphen were excluded from their analysis.

The researchers found that their choice of classification scheme had a profound impact on their results, with some schemes painting a much bleaker picture than others for certain racial or ethnic groups. In using the second approach, for example, and classifying students who had identified themselves as white and Native American as being Native American, they drastically overestimated the percentage of Native American students who were receiving merit-based aid.

Because each classification scheme had strengths and weaknesses, the researchers concluded “there is no single solution to this empirical dilemma."

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Asian Americans Rebel Against New U. of California Admissions Policy

University of California officials have angered many Asian Americans in that state by adopting an admissions policy tentatively projected to decrease their share of students admitted to UC campuses. As discussed in depth here in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Asian American activists have responded to the change by mounting a campaign of resistance involving legislative pressure, threats of litigation, and angry letters and phone calls to the university from Asian-American parents and alumni. The university continued last week to insist that Asian Americans' fears of being disadvantaged by the new admissions policy are overblown, but Asian American activists and the state legislature's Asian American and Pacific Islander caucus weren't buying it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Color and Money Author Wins National Award for Writing on Education Research

The Education Writers Association has given a national award to Color and Money author Peter Schmidt for his reporting on education research as a Senior Writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The association gave Schmidt a special citation for beat reporting for 2008 articles on education research dealing with black men in college, colleges' increased reliance on part-time instructors, affirmative action, remedial education, and selective colleges' reliance on the SAT test.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Yale Plans to Halt "Ethnic Counselor" Program

Yale University’s undergraduate college plans to cease maintaining a force of “ethnic counselors” to help minority freshmen adjust to their first year of college.

Yale College now assigns 13 seniors to work with freshmen from racial or ethnic minority groups, while an additional 78 seniors serve as residential student counselors for the broader freshmen population. The planned overhaul of its counseling efforts calls for the ethnic counselors to be merged into the broader counseling force, which will be provided with intercultural training and expanded. University officials have said the new counseling force will be better able to serve students who are not necessarily members of minority groups but face challenges in adjusting to Yale.

An article on The Chronicle of Higher Education news blog discusses the move, and student reactions to it, in more depth. It includes a prediction by Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, that other colleges will cut back on their ethnic counselor forces in the coming months. Unlike Yale, however, many of the others will make such moves as part of efforts to shrink their payrolls in response to financial pressures.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Public College Presidents Put on Notice They Might Be Held Personally Liable for Illegal Speech Codes

A prominent free-speech advocacy group has stepped up its campaign to limit the speech codes that many colleges rely on partly to ensure their minority students feel comfortable on campus.

As discussed in detail in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is turning the heat up on public colleges' presidents and chancellors by warning them that they can be held personally liable by the courts if their institution's speech code violates the First Amendment.

FIRE has sent registered letters to officials at 266 public colleges telling them it regards their speech codes as problematic. The letters cite 1982 Supreme Court ruling, in the case Harlow v. Fitzgerald, which held that government officials have immunity from personal liability for their actions only "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Having, through standard certified mail procedures, formally acknowledged receipt of the letters in their hands, the college officials can no longer claim ignorance if sued over their speech policies, the letters say.