The Bigger Higher-Ed Affirmative Action Issue

It is widely expected that before the U.S. Supreme Court ends its current session, it will act to significantly restrict college affirmative action programs in a case involving Texas.

But in the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation argues that while the Supreme Court may do damage to minority access to elite universities if it strikes down affirmative action programs, the bigger ongoing outrage is the inadequate funding and poor accountability afflicting the institutions that are failing most minority college students:

People may vehemently disagree about how to help minority students in K-12 education, but nearly all agree that the students need help in the first place. Yet in every big city with a headline-making, underperforming school district, there’s a public higher education system receiving not 1/100th of the scrutiny. Detroit, for example, is widely seen to have the worst public school system in America—so bad that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he “lose[s] sleep over” the plight of the city’s 50,000 students. But how many people know that Wayne State, Detroit’s main public university, has an 8 percent—yes, 8 percent—graduation rate for black students? Who’s losing sleep over them?

Detroit is, no surprise, a worst case. But it’s hardly the only city with a pervasive and largely ignored higher education problem. In Duncan’s hometown, 19 percent of black students who enroll full-time at Chicago State University graduate within six years. At California State University, Los Angeles, it’s 22 percent. The University of the District of Columbia matches Wayne State for futility, with an 8 percent graduation rate for black students. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee? 19 percent.

Texas Southern University in Houston was once the Texas State University for Negroes—the separate, unequal institution that the state created to avoid integration…. Today, it hosts the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and graduates 12 percent of its black undergraduates on time.

Carey thinks the inevitable furor over the Texas case before the Supreme Court should draw attention to this broader problem of educational equity:

States need to start practicing financial affirmative action by devoting more public resources to colleges that enroll students with the greatest academic needs. Along with the federal government, they should also penalize institutions with terrible graduation rates, student loan repayment rates, and post-graduation employment and earning rates, compared to peers with similar student populations. Those who set the national education agenda need to look past the handful of universities that graduate the ruling class and focus on improving the neglected institutions that educate future minority school teachers, scientists, doctors, and engineers. It will require the work of generations, but that’s what minority college students—blinkered jurists notwithstanding—truly need.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.