Monday, September 12, 2011

The Challenge UW-Madison Faces

There is something terribly disingenuous about talking about educational practices without first describing the context in which they operate.

UW-Madison, the Center for Equal Opportunity "reveals," seeks to enroll students from many different backgrounds. It employs preferences of all kinds to do so--favoring talented musicians, athletes, people from Wyoming, and yes, people who weren't born White.

Is this unjust? That's the question you have to ask, since it certainly isn't illegal.

When weighing your response, consider this:

(1) The Wisconsin population is comprised of about 14% non-white minorities-- that's about 744,000 of the 5.4 million people.
(2) Among the population who ever graduated from high school (not necessarily on time) the proportion is about the same.
(3) Among high school graduates who were in the top half of their class and took the ACT, just about 8% are minorities. That's about 2,700 people-- the total number of minority students in Wisconsin that UW-Madison can recruit directly from public high schools.
(4) According to the CEO (and that is a HUGE caveat-- their data do not match UW's, posted on the website), in 2007, 19,345 students applied to Madison. Just 1103 were Black or Hispanic. That includes plenty from out-of-state, from private schools, etc. We admitted 71% of the Black students and 90% of the Hispanic students. In total, that gave us just 892 students meeting those criteria.

The higher rate of admissions among Black and Hispanic students might seem unfair if you simply compared it to the rate for White students (62%) but consider the context. Look at what these students have to survive in order to get admitted-- they are the cream of their crops, regardless of their test scores. In fact, their ability to survive and thrive a sorting process that is clearly setting them up to fail at every stage is hard-core evidence of their ability to succeed at UW-Madison. It's a far better proxy than an ACT score.

Moreover, the moment they actually apply to college they are fiercely fought over by colleges and universities nationwide. Diversity is a marker of "success" now, and wooing talented non-white student is big business. If you like diversity for no other reason, you should be excited about it because it improves our U.S. News rankings. (not that I value those at all, nor should you.)

Ask your professors: Would you rather teach the student who always knew he'd go to college, always did well on tests, and doesn't have to study much to pass your class? Or would you rather teach the student who lived with lifelong uncertainty, whose mom and pop never set foot on a college campus, who always felt isolated in school, and yet still graduated from high school, having taken good coursework and finishing well, did take the ACT and simply didn't get as high test scores? That guy is working his butt off to succeed every day. And boy, if you ask me-- I want both of those students in my classroom, together, every day, to learn from each other. No, I don't think that only minority students fall in the latter category. Plenty of white students do too, and class-based affirmative action coupled with race-based affirmative action would undoubtedly make for a stronger UW-Madison, one that confers even greater benefits on all of its graduates, helping them produce rich social networks that will lead them to good jobs and happy lives.

How will we make all that happen if test scores and a false sense of "fairness" determine who we let in? The answer is clear: we won't.

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