03 November 2009

Race, Class, Income and College

Another major data set, by sociologist Thomas J. Espendshade, on race, class, income, test scores and admissions based on data from 9000 students at ten highly selective public and private institutions of higher education in the United States (include public and private institutions, research universities and liberal arts colleges) is available.

The results show that empirically, being black is a major plus in the selective college admissions process, that there is some advantage in the admissions process to being Hispanic or lower class, and that being Asian is a disadvantage. High social class is a plus a public colleges and a minus at private colleges.

Of course, all those advantages are for a given applicant with a given class rank and set of test scores. All the groups that are at a disadvantage in the admissions process are overrepresented in those institutions of higher education.

In a nutshell, those groups that are favored in the process are favored because they are rare, and those groups that are disfavored in the process are disfavored because they are common. Highly selective colleges are not jammed full of lower class black students who were in the bottom 20% of the high school classes.

Indeed, it is remarkable how many people who didn't do very well in high school manage to get into highly selective colleges. Traditionally, one assumes that people in the bottom 40% of their high school class aren't college bound. Yet, of those admitted to highly selective colleges, a large percentage do come from the bottom 40% of their high school classes. About 33% of white students, 74% of black students, 61% of Hispanic students, 37% of Asian students, 56% of lower and working class students, 42% of middle class students, and 32% of upper class and upper middle class students.

Lots of mediocre high school students of all races and classes get into highly selective colleges, and students from a "disadvantaged" background are particularly likely to get into highly selective colleges despite mediocre high school performance. Indeed, given the likelihood that it took greater academic ability to get a good class rank at the schools attended by upper class and upper middle class students, the "disadvantaged" students were probably more medicore as high school students than those numbers would suggest.

Retention and Big Picture Issues

The new numbers deserve some caveats (some explored in a prior post of dropping out of college).

First, the higher up the selectivity chain you go, the more extreme affirmative action numbers tend to appear. Non-academic factors play a much larger part at Yale or Princeton than they do at a branch campus of Colorado State University or Mesa State College. At less selective schools prestige issues siphon off many of the best students, and bare minimum standards (set below levels where there is much of a likelihood of securing a four year degree once admitted) set a floor, so there isn't nearly as much of a range witin students who are admitted.

For exapmle, the four year college program presumptive cutoff of 85 on their admissions index at Mesa State College (in Grand Junction, Colorado) translates to roughly a 460 on each setion of the SATs (about the 35th percentile), a 19 ACT (35th percentile), a 35th percentile in class rank, and a 2.7 GPA (B-), or some appropriate combination of these test scores, class rank and GPAs. This is not the least selective college in the state. Community colleges and associate degree programs are usually even more open in their admissions process than four year college programs. At colleges that have open admissions or are not highly selective, anyone minimally qualified is given the opportunity to find out for themselves if they are capable of earning a degree. At Mesa State College, with these admissions standards, about one in three admitted students manages to graduate in six years.

Attrition based admissions sort those likely to continue from those unlikely to continue as well or better than the traditional process for upper division students. Students who transfer from community college to four year colleges do as well as the average traditionally admitted student of the state's flagship University of Colorado campus in Boulder, and better the average traditionally admitted student at less selective institutions. Students at high risk of dropping out usually do so early.

A second and related factor is that mostly, college admissions is about where, rather than if, one goes to colleges. Almost every state has colleges and universities that will admit almost anyone with a high school diploma or GED. Indeed, these institutions, as well as being the easiest to get into to are also usually the least expensive. Everyone with any meaningful chance of completing a college degree can get into some public college or university, or at least, will not be denied admission on account of inferior academic ability.

The college admissions process is mostly about matching academic ability and other plus factors (e.g. race, social class, extra-curricular interests, being from far away, legacy status), with institutional prestige. A failure to get admitted at one college (as an undergraduate) mean that one will be admitted to a "safety school" instead.

People who don't get into college at all usually fail because they don't understand this feature of the admissions process, not because they can't get into any college or university. Far more people who have a meaningful chance of earning a degree fail to do so because they feel they can't afford it, need to meet family obligations, or fail to complete the proper entrance exams and applications, than because they are academically incapable of getting into any college or university.

Indeed, given the surprisingly low retention rates at reasonably selective public universities (two in three students graduate in six years at the most selective public institutions in Colorado) and the extremely low retention rates at less some of the least selective public institutions (at Metropolitan State, one in four graduate in six years, at most community colleges in Colorado, most drop out in the first year), it is fair to say that many, many people who don't have a meaningful chance of earning a degree do get into some college or university.

Seen in this light, affirmative action at the undergraduate level is less insidious. A small number of Asian and white applicants will go to a slightly less presitigous institution than they might otherwise have attended, and a small number of "disadvantaged" student will go to a more prestigous institution than they might otherwise have attended. In the case of applicants who are both black and poor, it will often be a much much sought after institution than they might otherwise have attended.

Moreover, institutional prestige isn't the whole story. Those who went to less prestigous schools than they might otherwise have attended will tend to have a higher class rank than they would have at the more prestigous school. Those who attend more prestigous schools tend to be towards the bottom of their classes academically. In a lot of cases, those students who are given the benefit of the doubt, for whatever reason, and admitted with marginal academic credentials, end up dropping out rather than earning undergraduate degrees. Those who drop out, moreover, more often than not, do so in the first couple of semesters.

Once people graduate, the link between the prestige of the school you attended and your academic performance there, and many economic and non-economic measures of life success, is not necessarily very great.

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