The Race-Report Card

By Emily Gold / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007
Critics of affirmative action are fond of pointing out that SAT scores for African Americans admitted to the country's best universities are often 100 to 250 points lower than those of white students. Not only are these blacks preventing better-qualified Caucasians from getting into schools such as Brown, these critics assert; the policies also hurt African Americans themselves, by holding out the fictitious hope that they can make it in places like the Ivy League.

A comprehensive survey of African-American college graduation rates conducted for the autumn issue of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education paints a far different picture. That study shows that the schools with the highest graduation rates for blacks are actually some of the most selective colleges in the country. Harvard ranks at the top, with 94 percent of black students graduating, and Brown is not far behind, at 89 percent. (The national average is 39 percent.) At some schools, such as Vassar, blacks actually have higher rates of graduation than whites. At Harvard, the graduation rate for blacks is only 3 percent lower than for whites, while at Brown and Princeton, the difference is 4 percent in favor of whites. At the other Ivy League schools, the discrepancy is considerably larger, ranging from 10 to 21 percent. All but the University of Pennsylvania, however, do better than the national average of 20 percent.

The Journal study concludes that the success of blacks at Ivy League schools "discredits the assertion made by many conservatives that black students admitted to our most prestigious colleges and universities under race-conscious admissions programs are incapable of competing with their white peers."

But why? Although the study is short on explanations, one likely reason for the success of blacks at Brown, for example, is the swelling of the black middle class, and the better education that tends to accompany upward social mobility. As Director of Admission Michael Goldberger says, "We only accept the very best." Fortunately, the gap between the very best black and white high-school students has narrowed. "There are enough black students out there who can succeed in this competitive environment," says Karen McLaurin-Chesson '74, associate dean of the College and director of the Third World Center. "The University does not [have to] take the kind of risks that it took for people like me."

School % for White % Blacks % Difference
Harvard 97 94 3
Princeton 96 90 4
Brown 93 89 4
Yale 96 86 10
Dartmouth 96 85 11
Cornell 91 77 14
Columbia 86 72 14
Penn 90 69 21

The study also suggests that Brown does a good job of giving African Americans the support they may need after they are admitted. "There are a lot of people here who encourage us to stick it out and do our best," says Christal Forgenie '00, a human-biology concentrator and a member of a group called Students of Caribbean Ancestry. Forgenie points to the staff of the Third World Center, to her academic advisers, to the chaplains, and to several professors who have gone out of their way to help.

Such things as Black History Month, the minority peer counseling network, and even the controversial Third World Transition Program (a four-day annual orientation for incoming minority freshmen) may also be helping. "TWTP opens up the door to make us realize we have people there to help us," Forgenie says.

Although Brown did well in the graduation-rates survey, McLaurin-Chesson cautions against reading too much into it. The study also showed that 11 percent of African Americans who enter Brown do not graduate within six years (as opposed to 7 percent of whites). "We need to know why the graduation rate is 89 percent and not 100. And we have to look at what happens to that other 11 percent."

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January / February 2000