What CUNY’s Numbers Mean

New York Sun, August 11, 2006

News that the proportion of African-American students attending the most elite schools of the City University of New York is declining is certainly troubling, but it would be a big mistake to be troubled for the wrong reason. Whatever else one wants to read into the statistics, there’s no evidence that the university is in some way biased against minorities in its admissions policies. The real question raised by the numbers is why minority students appear to be having so much trouble competing under the admissions standards introduced in 1999. The answer is to be found not in a CUNY admissions office but in the elementary and high schools.

The numbers are startling. Blacks last year made up 30% of the undergraduate student body at City College, down from about 40% in 1999, before more rigorous admissions standards were re-introduced. Hunter has seen its black enrollment decline to 15% from 20% over the same span, while the drop at Baruch has been to 14% from 24%. The numbers seem all the more puzzling because they come as overall black enrollment across the CUNY system has increased by about 1.3% during that period.

What that means, a Manhattan Institute scholar, Heather Mac Donald, posits, is that black students are increasingly finding their way to less prestigious programs tailored to the needs of students who leave high school unprepared for more rigorous higher education.That has been the case in the University of California system, which was required by law to end its affirmative-action admissions program several years ago and has since witnessed a decline in black enrollment at its marquee campuses.

Such a development is not necessarily a bad thing. Scholarly critics of affirmative action in higher education have long noted that students admitted to highly selective colleges under affirmative action have higher drop-our rates and earn lower grades, on average in the lowest quartile of their classes, than their peers who satisfy a school’s admission requirements without the benefit of a race-based preference.

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If the trend of some of those students away from elite institutions toward colleges better suited to meet their needs results in higher graduation rates overall for minority CUNY students, the latest enrollment figures could turn out to be good news. But it won’t let the city’s public elementary and high schools off the hook. Minority students are innately as smart as anyone else and deserve nothing less than a high school education that will allow them to compete on merit.

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