From the issue dated June 1, 2007
What Color Is an A?
Colleges take on a persistent but rarely discussed issue: the poor
grades earned by many minority students
By PETER SCHMIDT
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Chantrice Ollie is an all-too-rare find at most predominantly white,
selective colleges: a black student with a high grade-point average.
She applied to Skidmore College with weaker academic credentials than
most of the students it admits. Her public high school, in Cleveland,
offered few advanced courses. She had earned mostly A's, but her SAT
scores were well below Skidmore's usual standards.
Had Ms. Ollie enrolled at a different elite college, there is a good
chance her grade-point average would be well below the 3.6 she has
earned at Skidmore in her freshman year. But Skidmore - a small,
private, liberal-arts college in a town known for its horse tracks - has
committed itself to taking in academic long shots and turning them into
winners. On the whole, the black students admitted through Skidmore's
special programs for subpar applicants from economically and
educationally disadvantaged backgrounds earn higher grades than those
who enroll through the regular admissions process. The same holds true
for other racial and ethnic groups.
Ms. Ollie attributes much of her academic success so far to the
emotional support she receives from the programs' staff and her fellow
participants. "It's a family," she says.
In finding ways to increase the share of its minority students who
perform at high levels, Skidmore is itself exceptional. After more than
five decades of racial integration and four decades of affirmative
action, most of the nation's colleges and universities have not come
close to eliminating the performance gap that separates many black,
Hispanic, and Native American students from their white and
Although some colleges say they are working on the problem, few have
any proof that their strategies are effective. The paucity of minority
undergraduates earning high grade-point averages remains one of the
chief obstacles to diversifying the enrollments of advanced-degree
The crisis could grow more dire. As legal and legislative assaults on
affirmative action continue, more graduate and professional schools may
have to stop considering applicants' race and ethnicity. Unless colleges
can find ways to improve minority undergraduates' academic performance,
there is likely to be a drop in the percentage of black, Hispanic, and
Native American students becoming doctors, lawyers, professors, and
Susan B. Layden, who oversees Skidmore's efforts to promote minority
achievement as associate dean of student affairs, is among a growing
group of educators and researchers who believe that colleges must do far
more to help minority students earn high grades.
"This is not rocket science," she says. "We can do this across higher
education, especially at the elites."
Worse Than Expected
In seeking to increase their numbers of high-achieving black, Hispanic,
and Native American students, colleges face two formidable problems:
Such students are substantially underrepresented among applicants with
high grades and SAT scores. And even those who perform well in high
school tend to do worse in college than white and Asian-American
students with comparable SAT scores and grades - a problem known as "the
The underrepresentation of black, Hispanic, and Native American
students among highly qualified college applicants is often blamed on
disparities in family education and income, as well as on inequities in
elementary and secondary education. But the children of many affluent
professionals in those same groups are struggling, too - tending, on
average, to score lower on the SAT and academic-achievement tests than
white and Asian-American students who attend inferior schools and have
parents with less education and money.
Education researchers and other social scientists have offered a host
of explanations for such performance gaps, including the residual
effects of slavery and segregation, the stigmatization of high academic
achievers by their minority peers, and the lack of minority role models
among college administrators and professors. All those theories are the
subject of vigorous debate. (See article on Page A26.)
Whatever the reasons, the fact is that white and Asian-American
students continue to outperform black, Hispanic, and Native American
students by a significant degree. According to the National
Postsecondary Student Aid Study, the percentage of the nation's white
undergraduates earning mostly A's is about twice the proportion of black
undergraduates doing so.
Researchers with access to the transcripts of students at selective
colleges say the performance gaps are even more pronounced there,
especially at the highest achievement levels and among students majoring
in mathematics, engineering, the sciences, and technology-related
Such gaps exist in advanced-degree programs as well. Studies of law
schools conducted since the early 1990s have found that about half of
black students rank in the bottom fourth, or even the bottom tenth, of
their classes (the variation mainly reflects differences in the law
schools and student populations being studied). One of the chief goals
of programs such as Skidmore's is to ensure that minority students are
better represented among students ranked in the middle and near the
Academic Boot Camp
In an attempt to compensate for the short supply of black, Hispanic,
and Native American students who meet its regular admissions standards,
Skidmore, with a total enrollment of about 2,400, annually admits about
40 freshmen whose failure to make the cut seems related to their
disadvantaged backgrounds. Once they matriculate, the college provides
them with support services intended to help them succeed academically.
Skidmore has two intertwined efforts under way: the Higher Education
Opportunity Program, which receives state support and serves only New
Yorkers, and the Academic Opportunity Program, for students from other
The programs assist students who have high high-school grades and other
traits signaling strong long-term academic potential, but who have low
SAT scores or come from schools that offered few advanced courses.
One of those students is Uriel Salcedo, a sophomore whose parents are
working-class Mexican immigrants. The teachers at his Denver public high
school lavished high grades on him and praised his writing ability. But
when he arrived at Skidmore, he says, he got C's and D's on his papers:
"It was like I had been living a lie most of my life."
The Skidmore programs are designed to ease that transition, starting
before the freshman year even begins. Each incoming student must attend
a four-and-a-half-week academic boot camp. Students spend their days
taking an intensive writing course, an intensive math course, and a
course in which they must digest - and write analytically about - the
ideas of figures like Plato and Darwin. They are required to study for
three hours a night, with the help of professional tutors.
Bobby Langford, a a black freshman from Worcester, Mass., says the
summer program pushed him "to the limit," but that his writing skills
improved substantially. Moreover, the philosophers he studied are so
firmly implanted in his head that often, he jokes, "I think I am
thinking too much."
Vaughn Greene, a black junior who enrolled through the Higher Education
Opportunity Program and has served as a head resident in the dormitories
during the past two summer institutes, says many students at first fail
to take the summer program seriously. After getting slammed with D's and
F's on their first papers, however, "they realize it is time to switch
gears and actually do something because these people aren't playing."
The lesson appears to sink in. As of last fall, 78, or nearly 60
percent, of the 133 students involved in the two Skidmore programs had
grade-point averages of at least 3.0, and more than a fourth had at
In trying to close the academic performance gap between the races,
Skidmore is taking on one of academe's touchiest subjects. Officials of
colleges and universities generally refuse to disclose the median
grade-point averages of their minority students. Many are hesitant to
even discuss the performance gap, for fear that doing so would
stigmatize minority students or provide ammunition to those seeking an
end to race-conscious admissions.
Critics of affirmative action say the academic performance gap is
simply a result of colleges' willingness to lower their standards for
the sake of diversity. "If you systematically admit students with lower
academic qualifications, then those students are going perform below the
level" of regularly admitted students, says Roger B. Clegg, president of
the Center for Equal Opportunity, an advocacy group. The center has
produced several reports citing the lower achievement of minority
students as evidence that admissions offices give substantial
preferences to certain minority candidates.
'An Ignored Issue'
Some college leaders argue that the performance gap merits discussion
regardless of the political ramifications. "There are people who are
just waiting to pounce" on any bad news about minority achievement to
make a point, says Joseph A. Tolliver, St. Lawrence University's vice
president for student life. But "if you don't talk about it, how are you
going to solve it?"
Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of the University of
Maryland-Baltimore County, which has attracted national attention by
successfully fighting the overprediction phenomenon and getting black
and Hispanic students with high SAT scores to perform at least as well
as those scores would predict. He calls the performance gap "an ignored
issue." College leaders, he says, "should be more concerned about
seeking the truth and less concerned about what sounds popular or even
Discussions of the possible causes of the performance gap can easily
veer toward subjects that are controversial, even taboo. Glenn C. Loury,
a professor of social sciences and economics at Brown University who
previously directed Boston University's Institute on Race and Social
Division, observes that some academics fault the cultures associated
with certain minority groups or even suggest that genetics may be at
work. He can feel uncomfortable even entertaining the idea that cultural
forces play a role because, in doing so, he says, "you are presuming
there is something wrong with African-American kids, and now you are
undertaking to fix them."
The discussion is further complicated by the effectiveness of many
historically black and predominantly Hispanic colleges. Many of them
produce large numbers of minority graduates with academic records strong
enough to easily gain admission to most graduate programs and law and
medical schools. Their relative success suggests that predominantly
white colleges may place a distinct set of obstacles in the paths of
minority students, an idea that can put campus administrators on the
Talks Under Way
Many college officials who are working to close the performance gap say
the initial impetus for their efforts was the 1998 publication of
William G. Bowen and Derek Bok's The Shape of the River: Long-Term
Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions
(Princeton University Press). Based on their analyses of data from 28
selective colleges, Mr. Bowen, a former president of Princeton
University, and Mr. Bok, a former president of Harvard University,
extensively documented race- and ethnicity-linked differences in
achievement, including those attributable to the overprediction
phenomenon. They also found a strong correlation between undergraduate
grades and future earnings, with black students who earn low grades
suffering more, in terms of their future earnings, than white students
with comparable academic records.
Since then dozens of colleges have joined efforts to study and discuss
the academic performance gap, although most have yet to bear fruit.
Among the efforts under way is the Consortium on High Achievement and
Success, comprising more than 30 private liberal-arts colleges and small
universities, including Amherst, Brandeis, Oberlin, Pomona, St.
Lawrence, and Swarthmore. Established in 2001 and based at Trinity
College, in Hartford, Conn., the group has adopted a statement of
principles declaring that "all students who matriculate to our campuses
are capable of succeeding," and that member institutions intend to focus
on "promoting high educational achievement, not remediation."
So far the consortium has collected data from member colleges to
determine what approaches are working, encouraged its members to
replicate any programs shown to remedy the especially severe education
problems of black and Hispanic men or to academically challenge highly
talented minority students, and worked to design academic support
programs aimed at helping students perform well in difficult entry-level
courses. It plans to hold meetings in the coming months on effective
approaches to educating freshmen, teaching writing, and advising
students who wish to enter the health professions.
"We are trying all sorts of things. Some things are succeeding, some
are not," says Mr. Tolliver, of St. Lawrence, who is a member of the
consortium's Steering Board.
As part of a separate effort, scientists from 18 higher-education
institutions, including Bowdoin College, Harvard University, the
University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and the University of
Washington, have been meeting since late 2005 in symposia on improving
diversity in the sciences. Member institutions have agreed to submit
data on grade-point averages, retention rates, and other measures of
success, to establish a basis for long-term studies seeking to identify
effective strategies for improving minority achievement.
Wendy E. Raymond, an associate professor of biology at Williams College
who helps to lead the effort, says the federal government has spent
millions of dollars on programs that "have had very little statistical
success" in getting more minority students to become scientists. "Let's
encourage funding for programs that actually work," she says.
Elsewhere on the research front, Mr. Bowen is gathering data on the
performance gap as part of a study of 21 major public universities. The
Council on Aid to Education's Collegiate Learning Assessment is seeking
to measure how much undergraduates at various colleges are learning. And
the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering is gauging
member colleges' progress in getting minority students to earn high
Few Proven Strategies
From 2002 to 2005, L. Scott Miller, then executive director of the
Consortium for High Academic Performance, at the University of
California at Berkeley, led a three-member team in evaluating more than
100 efforts to improve the educational achievement of minority or
disadvantaged undergraduates. The researchers found many programs and
strategies that focused on increasing graduation rates, but very few
that explicitly sought to help more minority students earn high grades.
Moreover, the team found, few of the programs examined had undergone
any sort of rigorous evaluation of their effectiveness. As a result, its
report concluded, selective colleges "have few programs and strategies
with strong empirical evidence showing that they help increase the
number of high-achieving undergraduates from underrepresented groups."
Among the few exceptions cited were Skidmore's two programs and the
Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland-Baltimore
Established by Mr. Hrabowski in 1988, the Meyerhoff program recruits
high-achieving, well-prepared students interested in science,
engineering, and mathematics and takes steps to ensure that they perform
academically every bit as well as might be predicted based on their
high-school grades and SAT scores. Among its key components, the program
urges faculty members to act as mentors, monitors students' progress,
and encourages students in the program to help each other in study
The university has compiled data showing that participants have much
higher grade-point averages, and are much more likely to get admitted to
graduate programs in science, engineering, and math than are students of
the same minority groups who emerged from high school with similar
Unfortunately for other colleges, the Meyerhoff program's success
depends largely on its ability to bring high-achieving minority students
together. Because the nation's high schools annually produce only a few
thousand black and Hispanic graduates with Meyerhoff-caliber academic
profiles, there is a limit on the number of colleges that can duplicate
Mr. Miller and his fellow researchers concluded that the Skidmore
programs would be easier for colleges to copy. Both the Skidmore and
Meyerhoff programs are costly, however. The Skidmore programs had a
total budget of $4-million in the 2006-7 academic year.
Much of the money that is not used for financial aid pays the salaries
of the educators who advise and provide the intensive tutoring to the
The office that houses the Skidmore programs has a welcoming feel.
Students are free to drop in to seek academic help or simply banter and
chat with staff members. On a recent Friday morning, Monica D. Minor,
director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program, helped Eilin
Nunez, a sophomore from the Dominican Republic, plan a term paper about
politics in the Middle East. In another room, Lewis Rosengarten, the
associate director, worked with Linda Leandre, a black freshman, to
revise a paper that she had written for an English-composition class.
It is not as if Skidmore's minority students are completely happy with
the college. The freshman class is just 3 percent black and 3.7 percent
Hispanic. In April students here staged a protest demanding that the
college do more to promote diversity and fight racial bias.
"There are a lot of people here who have no idea where we come from,
the struggles we have had to get to college," says Ms. Ollie, the
freshman from Cleveland.
The program's advisers make a point of urging students not let their
studies suffer by getting overinvolved in minority-student organizations
or efforts to transform the college. Ms. Layden, the associate dean of
student affairs, says she occasionally intervenes with administrators
when she determines that they are distracting minority students from
their studies by asking them to help with minority recruitment or
The conventional wisdom in academe is that students will perform better
academically if they feel good about themselves socially and personally.
The Skidmore programs operate on the assumption that doing well
academically helps students feel good about themselves, says Ms. Layden.
To help minority students feel they can achieve at higher levels
regardless of what is going on around them, she says, "we create a
smaller environment within this place where students feel safe."
FITNESS FOR MEDICAL SCHOOL
Mean grade-point averages of applicants to U.S. medical schools in
2004, by race and ethnicity:
RACE, ETHNICITY, AND UNDERGRADUATE GRADES
Proportion of each racial and ethnic group earning high or low grades
as undergraduates, based on 2003-4 data for all U.S. colleges: