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Race-neutral alternatives: Post-admissions realities in STEM (Pt. 2)

This commentary continues on the merit of arguments made in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin before the Supreme Court.  And the warnings of what is at stake for students and institutions of higher learning are equally breathless and foreboding.  An exception is a recent "open letter to students of color," which reminds them (and us) that "you, your qualifications and your race could become the subject of scrutiny and potentially tried daily by a jury of your peers."  This is where commentary on access meets the reality of post-admission experiences—real students on real campuses dealing with real perceptions (informed or not). 

It is also where constructs like "race-neutral alternatives" and "critical mass" are tested in classrooms and beyond.  Part I of this column suggested that as the U.S. population becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, our higher education institutions leave too many students of color behind due to their inability to pay.  Their color combined with their class ironically affords them no preference—just the opposite of what critics claim.

Those critics of affirmative action tend to embrace another canard, that of "mismatch," which if adopted as policy would disqualify students of color from the most selective universities on the grounds that they are intellectually ill-suited for such a competitive environment.  The solution they propose?  They should not be admitted in the first place.  They should be discouraged from applying!  Mismatch is an hypothesis that could institutionalize the tyranny of low expectations, relegating students of color to second- and third-tier institutions of higher education.  It would enshrine race-neutral alternatives as the principal sorting mechanism that crystallizes an already class-based system.  That is the antithesis of a meritocracy.  You need opportunity to compete and demonstrate the merit of your efforts.  Mismatch precludes that process.

Mismatch is a particularly pernicious issue for STEM.  Why?  Because the so-called liberal establishment that (supposedly) dominates U.S. selective universities sustains, post-admissions, a largely nonminority pool of students.  The mythology that only certain students can do science has led generations to science and engineering while barring (i.e., by neither informing nor encouraging) members of those generations lacking a history of participation in those fields from competing and succeeding in what today is called "STEM careers."

Whatever admissions practices yield in student talent, faculty are charged with developing them into baccalaureate-and-beyond professionals.  The destiny of the undergraduate STEM major is held by the STEM faculty.  Their track record, which admittedly varies by discipline over time, is not stellar.  Attrition rates in STEM disciplines historically indicate that much admitted talent is lost, a reality for which faculty must at least share some blame for maintaining a classroom environment that isolates, intimidates, and otherwise undermines the success of students who "look different."  And STEM department chairs are fully aware that these students are not being well-served by their departments and classes. 

Of course, responsibility for attrition from college or attrition from a STEM major can also be attributed to the admitting institution (that either erred in its decision or under-estimated what was needed to produce "critical mass") or the failings of the students (individually, not collectively) themselves. 

College admissions is a tapered "pipe."  The narrower it becomes on one end, the greater its constriction of what comes out the other end.  Race-neutral alternatives can only constrict who enters the pipe.  To some this is seen as fair, to others it is just another mechanism that diverts talent in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.  Disregard for race and ethnicity only lags the changing demography of our nation.  Adopting race-neutral policies will penalize the fastest-growing segments of our student population for being poor and of color.  That is a 19th century inequality that should be obsolete in a 21st century economy.

Demography should not be destiny.  Just ask students of color.  When we perpetuate class advantage, we harden the status quo, as race-neutral alternatives inevitably do.  With such rigidity we effectively eliminate a source of STEM talent (that looks quite different from the current technical workforce)—unless our selective universities implement legally-sustainable creative policies and practices that do otherwise.  If these institutions cannot assure the bootstrapping of our young adult citizens of color, they are doomed.  And so is the nation.