Trend hurting minority students Preferences: As more states and universities move to eliminate affirmative action, fewer minority scholars can pursue higher education.

The Education Beat

June 03, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

FOR AFRICAN- Americans and other minorities, another barrier is thrown up each day at the threshold of higher education.

Last week, trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) voted to eliminate remedial classes at the nation's largest urban higher-education system. This followed the demise of affirmative action in public college admissions in Texas and California and ,, the court-ordered end of a blacks-only scholarship program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

At first glance, there might seem little in common between the dropping of racial preferences in admissions and the end of open enrollment at CUNY after a closely watched experiment of nearly three decades.

But the effect is the same: Fewer minorities are eligible for college.

About two-thirds of CUNY's 102,000-student body comes from a minority group, and half of its students are non-native speakers of English. Dropping remedial courses will render thousands of students ineligible for college. One official estimated the new rule will slash enrollment by 50 percent.

"What they are really doing is eliminating affirmative action from the process and resegregating the system," said Juan Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund.

So public higher education officials need a warning: If you're proud of racial diversity on your campuses, don't brag about it. Linda Chavez, a former Republican White House aide who ran for the U.S. Senate from Maryland in 1986, and her "Center for Equal Opportunity," are on the alert for any sign of racial preferences in admissions -- that is, admitting minorities with lower SAT scores than whites.

Last week, Chavez charged that the Army and Navy academies are admitting blacks and Hispanics with lower board scores. "We see a substantial qualifications gap," Chavez said.

The SAT is an imperfect vehicle, however. There's considerable debate over how accurately it performs its primary function -- predicting success in college. That "qualifications gap" isn't nearly as simple as Chavez would have us believe.

Dorothy G. Siegel, a Baltimore school board member and former dean at Towson University, studied the relationship of SAT scores and grades among freshmen at the university.

"We found that SAT scores are not predictive of college success in general," she said, "and they're even less predictive for minorities. Those who assert that taking students with lower SATs is diminishing college standards are simply not aware of the facts."

If racial preference is verboten, however, other preferences remain perfectly OK -- the preference for 300-pound linemen and nimble basketball guards, the preference for the children of alumni (known as "legacies"), for students who come from far away, for students with abilities not measured by the SAT.

College admissions will never be an exact science because defining "merit" is virtually impossible. Even the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, has warned that "equating scores with merit supports a mythology that is not consistent with the reality of data."

The most troubling aspect of the current trend is that it does nothing to address the inequalities in elementary- secondary education that contribute to the poor preparation of college applicants. As long as Maryland and other states allow poor city high schools such as Southwestern and wealthy suburban schools like Centennial High in Howard County to operate so differently only a few miles apart, there will be parallel inequalities in college admissions, and the bulk of students requiring remediation will be black.

If the forces arrayed against remediation in higher education get to Maryland, they'll run into a little problem: The state is about to ban the word "remediation." It implies that students who need remedial work have done something "incorrect" or that their "habits in a particular field of study are poor."

This observation comes from the "K-16 work group" of the Maryland Partnership for Teaching & Learning. The work group has declared that "remedial" education will be called "developmental" education.

The task force advises (and we quote in full): "In those cases where high school exit requirements do not correlate directly to readiness for the first collegiate course, data on remedial rates should not be reported in a manner that creates an impression that the schools have not adequately performed their jobs."

In short, if they aren't ready for college, don't blame the high schools. George Orwell, where are you?

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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