Why Aren’t There More Black Scientists?

Gail Heriot, Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2015

Remember when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) that universities would no longer need race-preferential admissions policies in 25 years? By the end of this year, that period will be half over. Yet the level of preferential treatment given to minority students has, if anything, increased.

Meanwhile, numerous studies–as I explain in a recent report for the Heritage Foundation–show that the supposed beneficiaries of affirmative action are less likely to go on to high-prestige careers than otherwise-identical students who attend schools where their entering academic credentials put them in the middle of the class or higher. In other words, encouraging black students to attend schools where their entering credentials place them near the bottom of the class has resulted in fewer black physicians, engineers, scientists, lawyers and professors than would otherwise be the case.

But university administrators don’t want to hear that their support for affirmative action has left many intended beneficiaries worse off, and they refuse to take the evidence seriously.

The mainstream media support them on this. The Washington Post, for instance, recently featured a story lamenting that black students are less likely to major in science and engineering than their Asian or white counterparts. Left unstated was why. As my report shows, while black students tend to be a little more interested in majoring in science and engineering than whites when they first enter college, they transfer into softer majors in much larger numbers and so end up with fewer science or engineering degrees.

This is not because they don’t have the right stuff. Many do–as demonstrated by the fact that students with identical entering academic credentials attending somewhat less competitive schools persevere in their quest for a science or engineering degree and ultimately succeed. Rather, for many, it is because they took on too much, too soon given their level of academic preparation.

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But regardless of the Supreme Court, congressional Republican leaders involved in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act this fall–notably Sen. Lamar Alexander and Reps. John Kline and Virginia Foxx–can nudge things in the right direction. Here’s how:

The first step is to understand that not every college or university is enthusiastic about race-preferential admissions policies. While only a small number would prefer to eliminate them, a large number are uncomfortable with the large preferences–amounting to hundreds of points on the SAT or an entire letter grade on GPA–that are currently routine. If these schools were able to act on their own judgment, the overall level of preference would be reduced, which in turn would reduce the “mismatch effect” that currently retards minority-student success.

The schools’ problem is that state legislatures, private foundations and the federal government sometimes push them to magnify preferences. The worst of these offenders are accrediting agencies. Although these accreditors do not dispense funds, an individual institution’s federal funding hinges on their stamp of approval. Many use their clout to enforce what is in effect an affirmative-action cartel.

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After Grutter, however, accrediting agencies were again emboldened. About 50% of the public medical schools I recently surveyed have since been warned by their official accreditor–the Liaison Committee on Medical Education–that they need to pay more attention to racially diversifying their classes. At least one law school, George Mason University, had its re-accreditation seriously threatened for failure to toe the diversity line.

This is where Congress can help, by prohibiting accreditors from wading into student-body diversity issues. {snip}

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