Are Maryland's state colleges discriminatory?

April 05, 2001|By Roger Clegg

WASHINGTON -- A study by two Maryland social scientists, Robert Lerner and Althea Nagai, raises disturbing questions about the role that race and ethnicity play in college admissions all over the country.

The 64-page study, released in February by the Center for Equal Opportunity, analyzes data from 47 schools nationwide and concludes that such discrimination is pervasive.

Unfortunately, another recent study by the same authors also published by the CEO finds evidence that the Maryland higher education system is no exception. That study analyzes whether the 10 four-year public universities and colleges in Maryland discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity and concludes there is strong evidence that some do.

When a state institution treats citizens differently because of their skin color or ethnicity, something is wrong -- no matter who are the "winners" and "losers" from the discrimination.

The 1997 data analyzed in the report were obtained from the Maryland Higher Education Commission by the Maryland Association of Scholars through a Freedom of Information Act request. The 10 schools are the University of Maryland campuses at College Park, Baltimore County and the Eastern Shore; Bowie State, Coppin State and Morgan State; other schools in the state university system at Frostburg, Salisbury and Towson; and St. Mary's College.

The principal red flag in the study is the glaring disparity among racial and ethnic groups in the SAT scores of the students who are admitted and enrolled.

At College Park, for instance, the median white enrollee has a composite (math plus verbal) SAT score of 1,220, 170 points higher than the black median composite score of 1,050. At St. Mary's, the gap is even larger. The white median composite there is 1,280, 245 points higher than the black score of 1,035.

Those are serious disparities, and it is hard to see how they could come about without deliberate discrimination.

It is statistically very unlikely that you would have these disparities unless the schools had a different standard for blacks and whites -- that is, the schools were requiring that whites have scores at one(higher) level, but that blacks have scores at a different level. The disparities are, in other words, strong evidence of a double standard.

The gaps between whites and Hispanics, and between whites and Asians, are generally smaller than the black-white gaps, but there are some exceptions. At Bowie State, for instance, Hispanic students' scores trail whites by 200 points; at St. Mary's, the median composite score for Asians is 115 points behind that for whites.

If some groups are being admitted with lower qualifications, then we would expect the "beneficiaries" of this discrimination to graduate at lower rates. Indeed, that is frequently the case.

At College Park, for instance, the four-year graduation rate for whites is 66 percent, versus 45 percent for blacks. The gap is even greater at Salisbury State. The Asian and white graduation rates at St. Mary's are an almost equal and relatively high 83 and 82 percent, respectively, despite the lower Asian composite SAT there.

The study also concludes that, if Maryland were to admit students on a colorblind basis, there would be still be many minority students admitted to each school. While some individuals might no longer be admitted to the most competitive schools, they could still gain admission to other state schools in Maryland where their credentials would be on par with the other enrollees.

Public college and university administrators owe the people of Maryland an answer to this question: Do you discriminate in favor of or against applicants on the basis of their skin color or ethnic ancestry? Dodges like "we don't use quotas" or "only qualified students are admitted" don't answer the question. Nor is it acceptable to say that race and ethnicity are "just one factor."

If Maryland state schools put skin color or ethnic ancestry on the scale, then they are discriminating, which is not only morally wrong but illegal. The federal court of appeals for Maryland is quite strict when it comes to state-sponsored racial and ethnic discrimina- tion.

Some lawyers may want to challenge this, of course, and some people believe that discrimination in favor of minorities is justified. But before having this debate, we deserve to know whether and how much these public schools are discriminating in the first place.

Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative public policy organization based in Washington.

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