What Happens When a College Recruits Black Students Others Consider Too Risky?

BY HANK REICHMAN

In an important article in the November-December 2016 issue of Academe, National Book Award winner Ibram Kendi — who will be keynoting the AAUP’s annual conference in Washington next month — explained “Why Standardized Tests Have Standardized Postracial Ideology.”

“In all the major affirmative action cases,” Kendi argued,

supporters and opponents usually agreed that standardized tests were “race-neutral.” Such tests thus effectively standardized postracial ideology in the admissions process, preventing Americans from seeing just how these tests exclude black students. . . .

Standardized exams have, if anything, predicted the socioeconomic class of the student and perhaps the student’s first-year success in college or in a professional program—which suggests that the tests could be helpful for students after they are admitted, to assess who needs extra assistance in the first year. . . .

These tests have failed time and again to achieve their intended purposes: measuring intelligence and predicting future academic and professional success. The tests, not the black test-takers, have been underachieving.

Now in a piece under the headline of this post The Hechinger Report provides further confirmation of Kendi’s argument by describing the success of one campus, Rutgers University-Newark, that has largely ignored test scores and actively recruited Black students that others would usually reject.  Here’s some of what Hechinger reporter Meredith Kolodner writes:

Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey has a graduation rate for black students that is far above the national average. But instead of offering out-sized athletic scholarships or perks to potential out-of-state students, the university is doubling down on a bid for students who are often ignored — low-income, urban, public high school graduates with mediocre test scores.

Rutgers offers free tuition for low- and moderate-income Newark residents and local transfer students, regardless of their GPAs and test scores. Its newly minted honors program doesn’t consider SAT scores for admissions. It has put emotional and financial supports in place. Course offerings have been enhanced. . . .

In 2015, Rutgers-Newark’s six-year graduation rate was 64 percent for black students and 63 percent for white students, according to administrators, compared with 40 percent and 61 percent respectively at public institutions nationally.

Among public universities whose student populations are at least 5 percent black and one-quarter low-income, Rutgers-Newark had the second-highest black male graduation rate in the nation in 2013 and the fifth-highest black graduation rate overall. It also had a much higher percentage of low-income students and African-American students than the four universities above it. . . .

It has become clear to more and more administrators nationwide that emotional issues can be as disruptive as financial ones when it comes to keeping students in college.

Faculty and staff at Rutgers-Newark now have a phone number and email they can use to alert a group of counselors if they think a student might be in trouble. The counseling team is aware that many students won’t seek assistance, so they’ve set up “listening tables” at gathering points on campus. Doctors and counselors are posted in academic building lobbies, student lounges and cafeterias to offer counseling and wellness advice and referrals on stress reduction, healthy relationships, sexual assault and other issues.

That same hesitancy to seek help sometimes trips students up financially, as well, university staffers say.

They were losing hundreds of students mid-stream for financial reasons. In 2009, between 800 and 900 student registrations were cancelled because students had not paid their bills, according to administrators. A program called Registration and Recovery Efforts has cut that number by two-thirds. . . .

The difference in Rutgers-Newark’s approach can also be seen in its honors college, the Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC), which opened in 2015. Accepted students get a scholarship that covers housing and a meal plan. Admissions require an essay and two interviews; standardized test scores are not considered.

This contrasts sharply with many honors colleges, which use their high SAT scores as a selling point. The median SAT score at Rutgers-Newark is only a few points above the national average. . . .

“A lot of places put a huge amount of emphasis on SATs and ACTs that don’t predict well for these groups,” said [Nancy] Cantor, the chancellor. “If you have a commitment to cultivating this kind of talent, why would you pay attention to those things?”

This year’s HLLC class of 60 was chosen from an applicant pool of 740 students. About three-quarters are from Newark, more than half are first-generation college students, close to half are transfers from community colleges and 80 percent are black or Latino, according to a university dean.

There’s much more worth reading in the entire piece, including personal stories of some extraordinary students.  But the lesson is clear: As Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. put it in his dissenting opinion in the landmark Bakke affirmative action case, we cannot “let color blindness become myopia which masks the reality that many ‘created equal’ have been treated within our lifetimes as inferior both by the law and by their fellow citizens.”  And if we ignore the seductive siren song of allegedly “race-neutral” quantitative measures, as Rutgers-Newark apparently has, those so treated will succeed and thrive, given half a chance.

As Kendi concludes, “The antiracist fight of the future should not be merely a defensive fight to save [affirmative action]. The antiracist fight of the future should be an offensive one, against postracial ideology, and against postracial admissions factors, starting with standardized tests.


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