Civil-Rights Panel Weighs In on Where Minorities Fare Best in STEM Fields

December 06, 2010

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in one of two reports released on Monday, weighed in on the question of whether minority students who pursue science degrees leave those disciplines in disproportionate numbers because they are admitted to colleges where their academic preparation falls below the institution's median.

The other report looked at the merits of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCU's, in educating minority students.

The report on minority perseverance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM disciplines—makes recommendations based on the statements of experts who briefed the panel at a hearing held in September 2008.

Most of the experts who testified at that briefing subscribed to the "mismatch" hypothesis, which holds that minority students fare better in those disciplines if they attend less-demanding institutions where there is not a significant gap in their level of academic preparation and that of other students.

Those experts included Richard H. Sander, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Rogers Elliott, an emeritus professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College, who have argued that race-conscious admissions policies actually harm many of their intended beneficiaries.

The commission's report, "Encouraging Minority Students to Pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Careers," also includes individual statements from members of the commission, and a majority of them accepted the mismatch theory.

"The research presented at this briefing provides strong reason to believe that attending the most competitive school is not always best—at least for students who aspire to a degree in science or engineering," wrote Commissioner Gail Heriot.

The bipartisan commission consists of four Republicans, two Democrats, and two nonaffiliated members.

Over all, the commission concluded that, at the colleges the panel studied, admissions preferences based on ethnicity resulted in higher attrition rates for minority students who entered intending to study a STEM discipline.

When black and white students enter with similar academic credentials, black students are actually more likely to graduate with a science degree, the report says. It is only when minority students' academic credentials are not close to those of their peers that the problem emerges, it says.

The commission said colleges should warn students whose academic credentials are less than the institution's median about the impact of that deficit, and urged guidance counselors to advise students on the problems they would face entering a STEM program at an institution where they fall below the level of the typical student.

The two Democrats on the commission dissented from major parts of the report.

"Our principal objection to this briefing and report is that they were fundamentally not about encouraging minorities to pursue careers in STEM fields," wrote Commissioners Michael Yaki and Arlan D. Melendez. "Rather, the major focus of the briefing and report was to promote Rogers Elliott, Richard Sander and their 'mismatch' theory."

Another of the experts who appeared at the STEM hearing two years ago, Richard A. Tapia, a mathematics professor at Rice University, said the mismatch theory leads people to draw the wrong conclusion, one that could set minorities back decades. He said elite colleges should continue to admit promising students who might not be as prepared academically, but should do more to help those students once they have been admitted.

"Simply stated, in a 'sink or swim,' non-mentoring, nonsupportive environment, which is what we see at many of our elite research schools, those with poorer preparation will rarely succeed, minority or majority," he said in a statement included in the report. "Why are we not demanding from public and private universities ... quality education of all our citizens?"

In the other report, "The Educational Effectiveness of Historically Black Colleges and Universities," the commission recommends that students in general attend colleges where the caliber of other students better matches their own abilities. It also suggests that researchers study high-performing HBCU's to uncover practices that should be applied to all colleges.