In short, the term "minority" as used by most colleges has no clear-cut definition, no consistent principle, and no coherent theory behind it. Minority students are whomever they choose to consider minority students. In practice, the term usually refers to whatever racial or ethnic groups have a statistical "representation" the colleges wish to increase beyond what it would be if the usual admission standards were applied. Blacks are the prime example, but much of what is said about blacks applies as well to Hispanics and American Indians.
In this chapter the main focus will be on black students, simply because more information is available on them. However, there will also be a separate discussion of Asian American students, because they are often treated differently from either blacks or whites by the colleges themselves.
When black students go to black colleges, it is much like white students going to white colleges, in terms of the kinds of things to look for when making your choices. The more challenging problem comes when black students go to colleges that are predominately white, sometimes overwhelmingly white. Because such colleges are by far the most numerous, and are spread out over a wider range of social, geographic, and academic diversity, these will be the main focus here.
"The races in the Northern universities have grown more separate since the sixties," according to Professor Allan Bloom in his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind. He is not the only one to notice this disturbing phenomenon. The Dean of Students at Middlebury College reported that—for the first time in her long career—some white freshmen in 1986 asked not to be assigned a blackroom-mate. So did some white freshmen entering in 1987. Racist graffiti and even physical assaults against black students occur on campuses where neither occurred 20 or 30 years ago. In 1987, a black student at Harvard suffered a smashed window and harassing, racist phone calls from white students. The first black student graduated from Harvard more than a hundred years ago and a black student was elected class president 30 years ago by the class of 1958.
The reasons for this retrogression are a matter of controversy. But the important thing for minority students and their parents to understand is that it is a fact. Minority parents with good memories of their own college experience on predominately white campuses should not automatically assume that their children can find a similar environment on the same campuses today.
Fortunately, the negative trends are not universal. There are campuses where no such retrogresion has taken place over the past generation, and some on which improved relations among the races have occurred. This means that black parents and students have an extra set of considerations to check out when choosing a college. It also means that this extra investment of time and effort is very much worth making.
Something as intangible as the racial atmosphere on a campus is not as likely to be known to high school counselors, nor do most college guides go into the subject very much, if at all. Moreover, what would constitute a "good" racial environment differs radically between one black student and another. For example, some black students at Stanford University consider it beneficial that there are special living quarters where black students are concentrated, while other black students dislike the idea and resent any pressures to get them them to move into these enclaves. Similarly sharp differences of opinion are found among Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian students.
If you are a black student looking for a campus where your academic and social life involves people from all races, including foreign students, then you may not be happy on a campus where black students continually group together, especially if you get negative reactions from fellow blacks whenever you have lunch or go to a movie with someone who isn't black. But, if what you are looking for is a campus where black students do stick together, for mutual support and for concerted action on campus to achieve their special goals, then you may be happy at the same college where the more "integrationist" black student is uncomfortable or even miserable. The important practical question here is not which position is "right" but which position is you. Talking this over with parents before choosing a college is a good way to help think through your priorities, especially if you and your parents have different views and talk them out.
If you are seeking a campus where black students form a separate community, then Cornell, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, and Davidson are among many that have that kind of environment. But if you are seeking a campus where black students interact socially as individuals in the larger campus community, then you may want to investigate places like Haverford, Whitman, George Mason University, the University of San Diego or the University of Puget Sound.
Related to the question of the college racial environment is the question of how you plan to spend your time in college. On many predominately white campuses, there are Black Studies departments, Black Student Unions, and often campus political activity related to either or both. Aside from whether you agree or disagree with the goals or methods of this activity, there is the question of how much time you are prepared to devote to activism of any sort.
There are other aspects of budgeting time to think about. In The Black Student's Guide to Colleges, there is a recurring emphasis on the number and nature of parties on campus. For example, a black student at Princeton is quoted: "Parties are not given often enough, and when they are, they just don't jump!" Again, it is necessary to be clear in your own mind as to what you are and are not looking for. (My own reaction to the Princeton comment was to recall a scene from an old war-movie melodrama called "The Guns of Navarone." When the Allied commandos had completed their mission and were getting ready to return from behind enemy lines, someone noticed that one of their members was missing. His partner knew that the missing man had gotten into a needless shoot-out with some Nazis, and had been killed. "He forgot why we came here," his partner said.)
Despite its emphasis on parties, athletics, campus politics, and other extra-curricular activities, The Black Student's Guide to Colleges may be worth looking at simply because it is "the only game in town" as a black student's college guide. It must be read very judiciously, however, because it lacks any depth or judiciousness of its own.
The Mismatching Problem
A common theme of The Black Student's Guide to College, and of some other guides, is the need of minority students for special remedial education in college. The grossly inadequate education provided by many ghetto high schools is part of the reason-but only part. Given the vast range of academic standards in American colleges and universities, anyone who is capable of filling out an application form is capable of meeting the normal academic standards of some institutions, somewhere in the system. Given the wide range of academic capabilities among black students, there is no inherent reason why they could not distribute themselves among the corresponding levels of colleges, just as white students tend to do.
In reality, this is not what usually happens. Minority students are systematically mismatched with institutions. It starts at the top colleges and universities, whose visibility and prestige make it politically necessary that they have a significant "representation" of blacks among their students. The wealth of such institutions enables them to offer the large-scale financial aid that many black students need to attend any college.
The drive to get a good-looking "body count" of black students leads the top colleges and universities to go way beyond the pool of black students who meet their normal admission standards. For example, there are numerous universities, liberal arts colleges, and technical institutes whose students' combined S.A.T. scores average 1200 or above. Yet a recent study indicated that less than 600 black students in the entire country score this high annually. That would not be enough to supply the Ivy League alone with a good statistical "representation" of black students who meet their normal standards.
Under these conditions, many black students discover too late that the "opportunity" to go to a big-name school turns out to be a trap. It is not a question whether black students are "qualified" but whether they are mismatched. For example, the average black student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a higher S.A.T. score in math than 90 percent of all American students. These black students can hardly be considered "unqualified." But, although these students' scores are in the top 10 percent among Americans in general, their scores are in the bottom 10 percent among the extraordinary students at M.I.T. Despite much lofty talk about the "irrelevance" of test scores, mismatching of this magnitude does have its effects. More than one-fourth of the black students fail to graduate at M.I.T., and those who do have significantly lower grades than the other students.
This is a needless disaster among highly capable individuals. There are numerous engineering schools at which they could have succeeded, or even excelled. Many individuals with all the ingredients of success have been artificially turned into failures by being mismatched with M.I.T. This is not a situation peculiar to this institution. It is an all too common experience for minority students throughout American higher education.
Twenty years ago, I discovered the same phenomenon at Cornell University. With half the black students there on academic probation, despite being steered to easier courses, I became concerned as to what the reason could be and looked up their records. The average black student at Cornell at that time scored at the 75th percentile on the S.A.T. test-that is, was academically superior to three-quarters of all American students. These were not "unqualified" students. But the average white student with whom they were competing in the liberal arts college was at the 99th percentile. Blacks with the qualifications for success were artificially turned into failures by being mismatched with Cornell.
More recently, the same phenomenon has been reported at the University of California at Berkeley. Although black students at Berkeley have S.A.T. scores slightly above the national average, nearly three-quarters of them fail to graduate. This is a devastating loss of capable young people. Moreover, it is getting worse. Fewer blacks graduated from Berkeley in 1986 than in 1975, even though the total number of black students at Berkeley in 1986 was significantly larger. More are just not making it through.
When choosing a college, you don't want to become one of these statistics. The big-name college's problem is how to get "enough" black students on campus so that the college looks good. Your problem is how to get a good education. No bigger mistake could be made, by students of any race, than to assume that you get a better education at a more prestigious college. For any given individual, the education may be much worse.
When one course alone assigns hundreds of pages of reading per week, those students without the necessary reading speed are going to fall further and further behind, understanding less and less of what is said in class. That's not a better education. When mathematical material that would normally take three semesters to cover is covered in two semesters at a school whose students average 700 on math S.A.T.s, that is not a better education for people whose math background is not at that stratospheric level. They may have no idea what anybody is talking about, halfway through the first semester, even if they are perfectly capable of learning the same material when taught at a normal pace elsewhere.
Fast-paced courses skimp on explanations and assume that you either have a solid math background or can fill in the gaps on your own. For students with extraordinary math scores, that is probably a reasonable assumption—but not for anybody else.
Because mathematics is an important ingredient in other fields (engineering, economics, chemistry, etc.), a failure to master math can eliminate your opportunity to major in a number of other disciplines. You may enter a prestigious college or university planning to become an economist or an engineer, and end up being forced to major in some other field with less math, less interest, and less prospect of a career. This is especially likely to happen at some large research university where the foundation courses in math are taught by disinterested graduate students, some speaking heavily accented English that is difficult to understand. Your chances of having the full range of choices open to you may well be better at a smaller institution where you are taught by professors specializing in teaching, and where the other students have math capabilities similar to yours.
The mismatching of students to colleges is not confined to the top institutions, but is common across a broad spectrum. When the top-level schools recruit black students who would normally be qualified to succeed at the level next to the top, then the second tier of institutions faces the prospect of either being conspicuously lacking in minority students or (2) dipping down to the next level below to bring in enough minority students for a statistically respectable "representation." Usually they end up mismatching students. Once begun at the top, this process continues on down the line.
Soberly comparing your S.A.T. or other test scores with those of the students you would be competing with at a particular college is one way to avoid getting mismatched academically. You may be told that test scores don't really matter because they are "culturally biased" against minority students. Unfortunately, life is "culturally biased" as well. Whatever you achieve or fail to achieve will be in some particular culture.
If the "cultural bias" argument means that a minority student with math and verbal S.A.T. scores in the 400s each is likely to match the academic performance of other students whose math and verbal S.A.T.s are in the 600s, then this is a dangerous falsehood-one that has ruined the academic chances (and life chances) of vast numbers of minority students, not only at M.I.T., Cornell, and Berkeley, but also at other institutions that keep such politically explosive data under lock and key.
Many people have their own reasons for saying that test scores under-estimate the future academic performance of minority or disadvantaged students. But the factual evidence against this widespread belief is overwhelming. Anyone seriously interested in the facts is urged to read Choosing Elites by Robert Klitgaard, though this is just one of many factual studies with the same result, covering a variety of tests, and extending internationally. The cold fact is that, on average, minority students with low scores perform no better in college than majority students with low scores. This is not peculiar to blacks and whites, or to disadvantaged Americans compared to Americans in general. The same pattern exists in other countries as well.
In the Philippines, for example, people living in Manila tend to score higher on tests than people living in the hinterlands. This may well be due to cultural differences rather than because people in Manila are born any smarter. But the bottom line is that low-scoring people from the hinterlands do not do any better in college than low-scoring people from Manila. It is the same story in Indonesia, where people from the island of Java score higher than people in the outer islands. But low-scoring people from the outer islands do not perform any better at the university than low-scoring people from Java. When the same pattern is found in the United States, it is often vehemently denied, by substituting rhetoric for evidence.
One of the reasons why this issue arouses such emotional attacks on test scores is that many people confuse this issue with various attempts to label blacks or other minority groups as being genetically inferior mentally. When black orphans raised by white families average the same I.Q. scores as whites, it seems to me pretty clear that racial differences in test scores are a cultural phenomenon. But cultural disadvantages are very real and very serious in their effects. From a practical standpoint, it doesn't matter how you got your disadvantage; it is still a disadvantage. Natural intelligence is not a complete substitute for a good education, good study habits, and wide cultural experience. It is wishful thinking to believe that it is.
Closing the Gap
Many middle-class white families begin training their children's minds when they are still in the crib. Educational toys for babies and toddlers are followed by books, magazines, and encyclopedias as they grow up, often followed by sending them to summer camps that offer courses on computers or other subjects. After 18 years of this, the differences between advantaged and disadvantaged students can be enormous. That doesn't mean that the disadvantaged student should give up. It does mean that the bitter facts about this disparity must be faced before it is possible to do something about it.
Many minority students and their parents will be shocked to discover how far behind their educational level is, compared to the level reached by other students with whom they will be competing in college. For example, in 1987 only three high schools in the entire city of Chicago scored as high as the national average on the A.C.T. college entrance examination—and 33 Chicago high schools scored in the bottom 1 percent by national norms. Students from schools like this have enormous amounts of ground to make up, just to compete with the average American student, much less with those students educated in the top public and private high schools.
If your S.A.T. scores are too low for any of the colleges discussed so far, you need not abandon hope. Not only are there colleges whose average S.A.T. levels will match yours; there are also ways to beef up your academic skills before going to college, which will probably raise your scores as well. If you are very serious about going to a college with high academic standards, and are willing to do whatever it takes to prepare for such a place, then a year of hard study between high school and college may bring you up to the level you want. There are many ways of doing this—and of financing it.
Spending a year at a community college boning up on basics in math and English will do the job for some. A few may want to spend a year at some private high school that has a "post-graduate year" program for those who want to strengthen their academic preparation before tackling college. Both kinds of institutions can tell you about the various financial aid programs available to cover your tuition and living expenses. This aid may come from the school itself or from a variety of government and foundation programs.
Some liberal arts colleges and universities offer a crash course on basic skills during the summer between high school and college, either for everyone or especially for minority students. These courses may be useful if you are already close to meeting the normal standards of the school and just need a little extra to put you over the top. But a summer is far too short to remedy years of sub-standard ghetto education. Relying on a summer crash course can be a prelude to crashing during the academic year.
A whole year spent working full-time on what you missed in high school is not too much. It may be the best investment of your life. It will mean graduating from college a year later—but that is far better than not graduating at all, or graduating only by taking the easier courses and missing many opportunities you might have been able to master, if you had had a solid educational background behind you. As it is now, many minority students end up taking 5 or more years to complete a 4-year college, because they discover the hard way that they cannot take a full load of courses and still keep up with the assignments. It is far better to take an extra year beforehand, to be able to handle the normal requirements in the normal way.
Minority parents sometimes get a second chance after they recover from the shock of discovering the gross inadequacy of the education received by their young man or young woman who is about to enter college. It can alert these parents to do something about the education of their younger children before they reach this point. "We can't wait until students are juniors and seniors in high school before talking to them about college," as the Dean of Admissions at Syracuse University said. "By that time, about the only thing you have to discuss is all the things they should have done when they were younger." Minority parents especially have to find out what can be done at an earlier stage, because often the public schools in minority neighborhoods fail as badly in counseling as they do in education.
Among the alternatives to a substandard public school are (1) transfer to a better public school elsewhere, if possible; (2) transfer to a private day school, in the neighborhood or away; or (3) transfer to a private boarding school, which may be located hundreds of miles away. Given the limited income of most minority families, options (2) and (3) may seem impossible. But they may not be.
It is obviously hard to try to send children off to private boarding schools because financial aid is much more scarce in private elementary or high schools than in college. However, some will be able to do this. An organization for minority students called "A Better Chance," located in Boston but operating nationwide, can be helpful for those who want to try this route. Other parents will find a variety of other options.
Many minority parents may never think of private schools for their children because "private schools" conjures up the image of posh boarding schools for the rich, located on hundreds of acres of land, and costing upwards of $10,000 a year. This is a true picture as regards places like Exeter and Andover, but most private schools are nothing like Exeter and Andover. According to official U.S. Department of Education statistics, nearly one-fifth of all private elementary schools in the United States charged less than $500 a year in 1985-86. That's less than $50 a month, and it can usually be paid in installments, just as people buy furniture and appliances on the installment plan.
At the high school level, tuition goes up significantly, on average. However, for high school as for college, you need only one. Moreover, at least partial financial aid is available, and an older child can contribute to his own tuition from his summer earnings. The summer earnings of a teen-ager making the minimum wage would cover the full tuition for a year at many private high schools, even if the parents contributed nothing and the school refused to give any financial aid. With just a small amount of help from a working-class family, it is very do-able. At the very least, do not dismiss the possibility without looking into the specifics. Getting a decent education in ghetto high schools is far harder, and trying to make it through a good college without a decent educational background is courting disaster, personal as well as educational.
Social adjustments that might be a strain at posh places like Exeter and Andover may not be nearly as difficult at low-cost private schools, where fellow students are also likely to be from modest income levels. There are private, all-black schools in Harlem, as well as in other ghettos from coast to coast. Even where the schools are racially integrated, the white students are more likely to be the children of carpenters or clerks, rather than the children of doctors or stockbrokers. Since most of these schools are day schools, rather than boarding schools, there is no adjustment to living with people from different backgrounds 24 hours a day, as there is at college. It could be a good transition, especially for black students with very little experience in dealing with people from other racial backgrounds.
Will private schools make a difference? Obviously, it depends on the individual. But a study by Professor James Coleman of the University of Chicago indicates that private schools improve the academic performance of black students even more than they improve the academic performance of white students.
Campus visits are even more important for minority parents and students than they are for others. There is no better way to tell how the local white students will react to a black student than by confronting them with a black student and seeing what they say or do. This is especially important in those parts of the United States where many of the white students have never interacted with blacks, and in fact know blacks chiefly from watching television. Even in parts of the country where there is racial diversity in the population, a particular college may draw the bulk of its students from affluent white suburbs. This does not mean that they will be racists, but there may be differences in social background that may be hard to bridge—or maybe not. Being there is the best way to judge.
One of the things to look for during your visit is whether the black students are mingled in with other students on campus or can be seen walking around in separate groups, eating lunch at separate tables, and perhaps rooming together in the dorm or even being housed together in a separate dorm. Whether you regard such patterns as solidarity or separatism, you need to know whether or not they exist and how that fits in with your own idea of what a college experience should be.
Many colleges and universities have a Black Students Union or similar organization. It can be very useful to talk to members and leaders of this organization during a campus visit, whether or not you would expect to join after entering college. The kind of leaders and the nature of the organization can have a deep influence on the whole racial atmosphere on campus, which in turn affects even those black students who do not belong. If their policies and actions create racial polarization, for example, you are going to feel it, whether you had anything to do with it or not. If the BSU plays a more positive role in helping black students adjust to the campus and the classroom, you will be a beneficiary of a better atmosphere, whether or not you yourself need such help in adjusting. Meeting the people involved can give you better information than you can get from any other source and you will know better than anyone else how well their ideas fit in with yours.
Parents can be very important during the campus visit, if they can afford to come along. While the student is on campus, the parents can circulate through the local community, getting impressions of the people and of their reactions to blacks. This may be especially important on a distant campus, in an unfamiliar part of the country, and where there are relatively few blacks living in the local community. It can be a very worthwhile investment to set aside ten or twenty dollars to make a large number of small purchases in various stores, shops, and restaurants, just to interact and get into conversation with local people.
If there is a local black community, some of these interactions should take place there. People in barbershops and beauty parlors seldom need much encouragement to talk, and a shoe shine or a shampoo may be enough reason to go in. Just mentioning that you are in town looking over the local college may be enough to bring out information about the atmosphere on campus and in town. If you go into a local fast-food place or other business during the slow hours, you have a good chance of finding people ready to talk. Informal and unofficial sources of information can be especially important to minority students and parents because there are so many taboos and shibboleths about race among college officials.
Not everyone can afford a campus visit, and even among those who can, there may be strict limits on how many campuses can be visited, how far away, and whether parents can afford to go along on all the visits. If a parent can afford to accompany the student to a college relatively close by but not one a thousand miles away, it may be a good strategy to visit the closer campus first. After students and parents take notes on what they see, at the college and in the local community, they may want to talk over what they found out very carefully, so that the student alone can cover many of the same things on the distant campus.
Where finances make even one campus visit doubtful, the cost should be checked out before writing off the possibility. Many colleges allow a free overnight stay in the dorms for the student and this is a very desirable experience anyway, as a means of collecting information and impressions. Inexpensive lodgings may be available for parents on campus or off. Motels in small college towns are often much less expensive than in big cities. If you can afford it, you will probably get your money's worth from a campus visit. Avoiding a situation that would be intolerable is worth a lot. So too is discovering a place where your academic development can flourish in an environment that also offers a fulfilling social development.
Virtually all colleges have athletic programs of one sort or another. But, like everything else, they vary enormously. On some campuses, especially among small liberal arts colleges, a large part of the student body participates in intra-mural sports for recreation and exercise. For those who enjoy sports, there is no real problem with this kind of casual athletic competition. There can be very serious problems, however, with big-time athletics of the sort that brings huge crowds to the stadium and may be televised to millions of viewers across the country. To some minority students, athletics presents a tempting way to go to college. But there is a lot to think about—very seriously—underneath the glitter and glamour.
Anyone who follows sports knows that blacks are heavily represented among both collegiate and professional athletes, and especially among the star athletes. The enormous salaries and tremendous publicity surrounding a relative handful of sports celebrities makes athletics seem far more promising than it is. The grim truth is that more than 90 percent of all college athletes in football, baseball, and basketball never sign a professional contract, much less have a career in sports.
In absolute numbers, less than 3,000 black people in the whole country make a living in these three sports combined-and that is counting players in major leagues, minor leagues, and semi-pro play, as well as coaches, trainers, and the like. This is not a realistic prospect for millions of black youngsters.
If all that was likely to happen if you became a college athlete was that your sports career wouldn't go any further, that would be just one of life's many disappointments. Often, it is far worse than that. The demanding life of an athlete—the practice, the travel, the time spent studying plays—can leave very little time and energy for learning anything academic. Four years of your life spent entertaining other people in a stadium can easily end up with you out on the street with absolutely nothing to show for it-no degree, no sports contract, no money, and no job skill on which to build a career. However much publicity and popularity you may have had on campus while playing, you can find yourself quickly forgotten by your former classmates as they go on up the ladder in their careers.
College athletics is a prime example of a situation where other people's agendas can destroy your agenda. The coach's agenda is to win—at all costs. Coaches are paid very well for winning and are fired very quickly for losing. Under these conditions, it is completely unrealistic to expect most coaches to be concerned about your education. On the contrary, the coach's main concern may be to stop you from taking "too many" solid academic courses that will take up time that he wants you to spend in practice, in body conditioning, and in learning the team's plays.
Although professional football players almost all came out of colleges, and are identified with those colleges, the great majority of National Football League players never graduated from college. The same is true in other sports. Of 18 first-round collegiate draft choices in the National Basketball Association in 1986, less than half had actually graduated. Among the minority who did receive a degree, not one majored in math, English, engineering, philosophy, or any of the sciences. Most majored in easy Mickey Mouse subjects.
Coach Joe Paterno of Penn State perhaps summed up the situation best when he said: "It has always been my opinion that the most important thing an athlete receives here at Penn State is his or her degree. The degree transcends everything else, including undefeated seasons or Bowl trips, All-American recognition, even winning a National championship. None of those things take the place of a good education."
Do not expect to find a lot of Joe Paternos in this world. Certainly don't bet your education and your future on finding another one.
Although most black students no longer go to black colleges, a sizeable number still do. There are more than eighty institutions in which over half the student body is black. Some are institutions established historically for the specific purpose of serving black students: Howard University, Tuskegee Institute, Fisk University, and the Atlanta University complex, including Morehouse, Spelman, and Morris Brown colleges, for example. Others include colleges and universities established more recently that became predominantly black because of where they were located—the University of the District of Columbia, for example—or simply because black students were disproportionately attracted to their programs.
In theory, there are black colleges and white colleges, but in reality things have become more complicated. There are white students on many traditionally black campuses today, and thousands of black students on some white campuses. West Virginia State College was initially founded in 1891 to serve black students, but today most of its students are white. Conversely, the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University is less than half white today, though other campuses of L.I.U. remain predominantly white. In absolute numbers, there are more black students at Wayne State University than there are at Fisk, Hampton, Tuskegee or most other black colleges and universities.
All this relates to your reason for wanting to go to a black college. If your purpose is to socialize with large numbers of other black students, then that can be done as easily at Wayne State or the Brooklyn campus of L.I.U. as it can at the traditionally black colleges. However, if what you really want is a whole environment that is overwhelmingly and traditionally black, then your attention must turn to institutions like Howard, Fisk, Morehouse, Spelman and Tuskegee.
Many black students will find that the academic standards and test score levels at black colleges match their own academic levels better than some other colleges do. Whether there is a match in other ways, such as in values and lifestyle, will depend upon the specifics of particular black colleges. You cannot assume that there will automatically be a match, just because the other students are black.
On the other hand, for black students with strong academic backgrounds and composite S.A.T.s above 1000, there are simply no black colleges to match them with academically. Many such students—especially those who have grown tired of always being in a small minority in predominantly white schools—often want to believe that there are black colleges to match the Ivy League or other top-tier institutions. But the facts contradict this belief or wish. Every black institution in the United States has a S.A.T. level below the national average. Howard University has long been regarded as first among the black colleges and universities, but less than half the Howard faculty have Ph.D.s and less than half the Howard students have graduated 5 years after they enter.
The historic role of the black colleges in creating a black educated class, the struggles these institutions had to undergo merely to survive, the many distinguished black scholars they had at one time, when they were the only places where such scholars could teach, have all combined to create a feeling of pride, loyalty, and mystique. But when you are choosing a college, the only colleges you can attend are the ones that actually exist today, as they really are today—not the legends that have come down through the years or the visions you may have in your mind.
Cutting through the images to the reality is especially important, and especially difficult, in the case of the black colleges. Neither high school counselors nor the authors of college guides want to be accused of racism for saying critical things about them. Most college guides, even those that can be critical or even sarcastic about other institutions, tend to be either bland or gushing about black colleges. Edward B. Fiske's Selective Guide to the Colleges is exceptional and tries in a gentle way to convey some of the realities about the black institutions. A campus visit, with well-planned note-taking, is even more important in the case of black colleges than for colleges in general.
The situation of Asian Americans is very different from that of blacks, Hispanics or American Indians. Whereas these latter disadvantged groups tend to score below the general population on tests and to have poorer academic records in general, Asian Americans tend to at least hold their own in general and to excel in mathematics and science.
Despite many spectacular success stories among Asian Americans-both native—born and immigrants—the average Asian American student is not spectacular. In 1987, Asian Americans averaged 405 on the verbal S.A.T. and 521 on the math S.A.T., compared to the national average of 430 verbal and 476 in math. Asian American students' below-average verbal and above-average math scores add up to a composite S.A.T. total just 20 points above the national average. However, it takes only a modest difference in averages between two groups to translate into substantial differences in representation at the extremes. Less than 4 percent of all students have a quantitative S.A.T. score of 700 or above, but more than 9 percent of all Asian students reach this level.
Asian Americans are accordingly very much over-represented in institutions with very high math S.A.T.'s. Asian Americans are about one-fifth of all students at Cal Tech and at M.I.T., and two-fifths of all engineering students at Berkeley. Although only about 2 percent of the population, Asian Americans receive 17 percent of all engineering Ph.D.'s in the United States. Of 70 scholarship winners in the prestigious Westinghouse Talent Search from 1981 to 1987, 20 were Asian Americans.
The academic success of Asian Americans is reminiscent of the rapid academic rise of Jewish immigrant children earlier in this century. Also reminiscent of that era are the limits that seem to be set against their increased admission to some leading colleges and universities. No one has admitted to setting quota limits for Asians but suspicious things have happened in many institutions in recent years.
The percentage of Asian applicants to Berkeley who were admitted was cut in half—from 62 percent to 31 percent—in just 5 years. At Brown University, the admission rate for Asian American applicants in 1983 was less than one third of what it was in 1975. The number of Asian Americans in Princeton's freshman class in 1986 was 25 percent lower than it was just the year before. At Harvard, white and Asian applicants had very similar test scores but, among those admitted, Asians had test scores more than a hundred points higher than whites, suggesting that they had to be better to get in.
At Amherst, 40 percent of black applicants and 43 percent of Hispanic applicants were accepted for the class of 1991, but only 25 percent of Asian American applicants. If other minority groups had higher academic performances than Asian Americans, that would be understandable. But all the evidence says just the opposite.
Given that man's sins are unlimited, while your time is not, how much time and effort does it pay an Asian American high school student to invest in worrying about this? Probably not much. The representation of Asian American students remains high at leading colleges, universities, and engineering schools across the country. There are more than a hundred institutions where more than 10 percent of the students are Asian Americans. Moreover, the proportions of Asian American students are rising sharply at some institutions while they are falling at others. The numbers of Asian American students have more than doubled over a period of 5 years at Cornell and Ohio State, and more than doubled in one year at Stanford. In over-all effect, quota ceilings are as petty as they are dishonorable. Quotas did not stop the rise of the Jews and they are not going to stop the rise of Asian Americans.
On a personal, practical level, if you were planning to apply
to five institutions, it may be worthwhile to apply to six, to make allowance
for any quota ceiling somewhere. Beyond that, it is not worth worrying
about. Above all, make a clear distinction between the administrators who
handle admissions decisions and the faculty who will be teaching you. Whatever
political considerations or sociological fads lead to quota ceilings among
administrators, professors are almost always glad to see good students,
and Asian American students have long established an academic record that
makes them welcome in the classroom. Once you are in college, your education
largely depends on you and the faculty. You may never see anyone from the
admissions office the whole time you are there.
Copyright 1989 by Thomas Sowell
Reprinted with permission