A Minute With...

James D. Anderson, education historian and policy expert

10/22/2012  8:00 am

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the case of Fisher v. the University of Texas, which challenges the use of race-based affirmative action in college admissions.  James D. Anderson is the Gutgsell Professor of Educational Policy Studies and head of the department of education, policy, organization and leadership in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. An educational historian, Anderson recently discussed the impact of affirmative action in higher education with News Bureau reporter Sharita Forrest.

How do you expect the Supreme Court will rule in Grutter v. Bollinger (the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that upheld affirmative action in college admissions)? And what impact might the ruling have on minority students and universities if the justices overturn that decision and race-conscious admissions are declared unconstitutional?

image of professor james andersonI think it’s a serious challenge for the court to overturn the Grutter decision within a decade. That would lend further credibility to the very prevalent belief that the court is increasingly an instrument of political partisanship. Nonetheless, the questions posed so far indicate opposition to the Grutter principle that universities could employ a “holistic review” that uses multiple factors, including race, to determine the admission of a diverse student body.

No judge seems to express direct opposition to diversity in education, but (Chief Justice John) Roberts, (Associate Justice Antonin) Scalia – and usually (Associate Justice Clarence) Thomas by extension – and (Associate Justice Samuel) Alito suggest strongly that diversity is merely shorthand for race. They also tend to define diversity as an array of phenotypic traits (people who look different from each other in skin color and facial features) in contradistinction to diversity as a process that brings students from varied backgrounds together to create a diverse and complex learning environment (for example, the scholarly works of Patricia Gurin, Sylvia Hurtado, Gary Orfield and Scott Page).

Such scholars view the benefits of diversity for all students as deriving from an enriched intellectual environment that fosters excellence, while the conservative judges seem to view it is as remediation based on blood mixture. The extent to which the court views diversity as shorthand for blood mixture may determine the extent to which it rules against or more narrowly restricts Grutter v. Bollinger.

If the decision is overturned it will certainly have a chilling effect on admissions for diversity, and institutions that remain committed to diversity will have to look to the best practices in states that operate with an affirmative ban such as Michigan, Washington and California.

Conservatives have argued that race-based admission systems cause a “boomerang effect” that negatively affects the intended beneficiaries by getting students into schools that are too competitive, when they might be better served by attending two-year colleges or other programs. What is your response?

Very simply, the proof of the pudding is in the taste; results are what count, not the uninformed speculations of conservative pundits. Let’s take our own state as an example. As of 2010, the six-year graduation rate of underrepresented students (black, Latino, Native Americans) at the Urbana campus was 75 percent. The six-year graduation rate is significantly higher than the rate at other Illinois public universities: Illinois State University (55 percent); Eastern Illinois University (46 percent); Western Illinois University (44 percent); Northern Illinois University (40 percent); and Southern Illinois University (36 percent).

If you are a parent in Illinois and know nothing else about what complicates these graduation rates, you would be greatly inclined to send your child to the U. of I. One might imagine that if the Urbana campus’s underrepresented students attended less “competitive” universities they would have a higher six-year graduation rate.

One might also imagine that a less “competitive” environment with reduced mentoring and advising networks might very easily drag their graduation rates downward. In the end, why take the risk? It’s important to realize that collegiate education is not just about competition; it’s also about such programs as Illinois Promise, writing workshops, the Office of Minority Student Affairs, the Counseling Center and other means of support designed to make our undergraduates successful.

The graduation rates at Illinois’ public universities are consistent with the findings of the most comprehensive study ever done of affirmative action in higher education. William G. Bowen, a former president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and of Princeton University, and Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University, documented in “The Shape of the River” (Princeton University Press, 1998) that underrepresented students who attended the most selective schools graduated at higher rates than did those who attended less selective schools. 

The so-called “boomerang” anecdotes have never been able to counter Bok and Bowen’s analysis, which was based on a study of 45,184 students who entered 28 selective colleges in the fall of 1976 or the fall of 1989.

Are there other means of promoting equality of educational opportunity that would better meet the needs of minority students and society?

There are likely to be a number of positive means to promote equality once we decide to face this problem squarely and remain committed over the long haul. President Obama, in his fourth year, has appointed an Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans, chaired by our alumnus Freeman A. Hrabowski III. Often our fears cause us to turn our heads until we can no longer avoid the problem. The question as to how to achieve excellence must be as central to our focus on educational reform as it is to Shanghai and Singapore.

In contrast to the President’s Commission on Excellence, the states of Florida and Virginia just passed new mandates tending toward mediocrity at best. For example, the Florida Board of Education’s new mandate stipulates that by 2018, 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanic students and 74 percent of black students are to be reading at or above grade level. The state also wants 92 percent of Asians, 86 percent of whites, 80 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of black students to be at or above their math grade level in 2018.

Today, Latinos (23 percent) and African-Americans (17 percent) account for 40 percent of the nation’s public school enrollment and 41.3 percent (23 and 18.3 percent, respectively) of the public school enrollment in Illinois. The need to promote equality of opportunity for minority students becomes more imperative with each passing year. Unfortunately, the budget-cutting mentality at the federal and state levels precludes appropriate programs and assistance precisely at the moment in time when our planning, policies and investments should focus on excellence and breakthrough programs. The nation simply cannot afford to leave large proportions of minority children to mediocrity, not to mention failure.

Minority college admissions and completion rates have been stagnating or declining nationwide. Why and what can be done to address this? However, a few institutions have shown considerable gains in making their campuses more diverse. What are they doing right – and how can other institutions achieve that?

The key question is to look for and learn from places that are successful. For example, the University of Virginia has been the leading public university in African-American graduation rates for the past 20 years with an 85 percent graduation rate. Further, within the past 10 years the proportion of African-American students at UVA with a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher has risen to 47 percent. The University of Virginia attributes its success to its selection of excellent students and to its support of students’ academic and social development through programs like its award-winning Peer Adviser Program.

Institutions that are interested in the success of underrepresented students have much to learn from institutions that are actually successful. In a nutshell, you end the stagnation in admissions with a creative and well-coordinated recruitment program – affordability and inclusivity are key elements – and you increase your completion and achievement rates with grounded programs for advising and mentoring.

Is standardized, high-stakes testing such as No Child Left Behind compounding minority students’ disadvantages?

The No Child Left Behind Act has been of little help to minority students’ achievement and in vital respects has caused more harm than good. It is part of a larger system of assessment and accountability that has heightened anxiety and pressured students and teachers toward an obsession with standardized tests. The graduation rate requirements have decreased high school completion rates and testing has brought on cheating in new ways, including cheating by teachers wanting to avoid the stigma of failing schools. To be sure, the NCLB requirement for the disaggregation of test scores by ethnicity spotlights the achievement/failure rates of minority students.

Still, the act provides no real remedy for the underlying causes of low achievement, especially such causes as segregation, funding inequalities and the concentration of children in schools with extremely high poverty rates, such as the Chicago Public Schools system. The surface remedies of vouchers and school closings are more of a Band-Aid than a cure for deep structural flaws, and the promise of improved “teacher quality” (that is, teachers must be certified for the subjects that they teach) is being ignored in state after state, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.


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