Minority Access to Higher Education

Last week I testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at their two-day event on minority access to higher education.  The Commission, which is now dominated 6-2 by liberals, deserves credit for inviting me, since I certainly did not tell the Commissioners what most of them wanted to hear.  Below is a summary of my statement; I’ve deleted the numerous legal and social-science citations, but you can read the full statement here.

Introduction.  Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Roger Clegg, and I am president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit research and educational organization that is based in Falls Church, Virginia. Our chairman is Linda Chavez, and our principal focus is on public policy issues that involve race and ethnicity, such as civil rights, bilingual education, and immigration and assimilation.  We do a great deal of work in the field of higher education and, in particular, with regard to the use of racial preferences there.   Much of our work is posted on our website, www.ceousa.org.

Overview.  The invitation I received said this briefing would be “examining the possible civil rights impact that access to and completion of higher education has on minority socio-economic mobility.”

Reading that, and the rest of the invitation letter, suggested to me that many people may reason:  (a) You really need a college education these days to succeed, and at as prestigious a school as possible; (b) a disproportionate number of minorities are not admitted to the top schools or don’t go to college at all; and (c) therefore, we need laws and programs that target minorities for help in getting into college, especially the top schools.

Now, I am not going to dispute that having a college diploma can be a good thing, and a college diploma from a more prestigious school can be an even better thing, and so if people of any color are missing opportunities here then that can be a concern.  Nonetheless, there are some significant caveats here and, in my testimony today, I will raise them. 

My principal message is that it is a mistake to look at this area mainly through a racial lens in 2015.  The problems are not really about race, and the solutions will not be either.  If people are not going to the colleges they ought to, this is a problem regardless of the skin color of the people involved.

Here are my specific caveats.

First, you don’t have to have a college education to succeed in life, let alone a diploma from a top college.  In any event, not everyone should go to college, let alone a top college.  I don’t think that many would disagree with this in principle, though there are strong differences in opinion about the extent to which these points are true. 

And, indeed, there is a considerable literature on the issue of to what extent everyone should go to college and how much difference it makes what college you go to.

Second, “minorities” are not fungible. 

It is foolish to think that the issues here are the same for African Americans as for Asian Americans, or for Arab Americans as they are for American Indians.  And Latinos present different issues, too, and of course there are many different kinds of Latinos — Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, those with other Caribbean or Central or South America ancestry, Mexican Americans — and indeed there are also many different kinds of African Americans and Asian Americans and Arab Americans and American Indians.

To make only the most obvious points:  It is much more likely that Asian Americans are discriminated against in Ivy League admissions than that African Americans or Latinos are.  (There are pending complaints – one filed in federal court, and one filed with the Justice and Education Departments – against Harvard for anti-Asian American discrimination in undergraduate admissions, and those complaints include impressive documentation.)  Conversely, whatever you think of giving racial preferences to “underrepresented minorities” (typically blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans), no one can deny that it is aggressively practiced by many selective schools. 

And, as discussed in more detail below, there are differences among minority groups in terms of culture generally and family structure in particular — and those differences have a significant impact on educational outcomes.

One last point here: Just as “minorities” are not fungible, neither are “nonminorities” (i.e., non-Hispanic whites).  There are white groups and subgroups, and many difference in wealth, culture — you name it — among them and within them.

As I said at the outset, it is not a good idea to look at higher education issues through a racial lens and to use skin color as a proxy for the characteristics that are really relevant.

Third, if some students are not going to college who should be, or are not going to more selective colleges who should be, then programs — especially government-run or government-funded programs — that help identify them and then help them to go to college should do so without regard to race or ethnicity.   Diamonds in the rough come in all colors.

This nondiscrimination principle is true not only as a matter of fairness, but also as a matter of law, including constitutional law.   As the Commission may be aware, the Center for Equal Opportunity has written a great deal over the years about why politically correct racial and ethnic discrimination is wrong as a matter of policy and law, and I will not belabor that point in my written statement, though of course I’m happy to discuss it at greater length in our question-and-answer period.

Fourth, the reason for the disproportions among different racial and ethnic groups and subgroups here in 2015 is likely not present discrimination or even principally rooted in past discrimination.  Certainly there are many causes apart from racial discrimination.  Consider, for example, the fact that Asian Americans and Latinos have each been discriminated against in our history, but the educational outcomes in 2015 for the two groups are quite different — and, as noted earlier, there are many subgroups within each group, which in turn also have different educational outcomes.

To the contrary, there is much preferential treatment today that overtly favors underrepresented minorities in higher education (and often discriminates against Asian Americans) as studies by the Center for Equal Opportunity and others have documented.  Educators, both public and private, are the most politically correct people in the world.  And politically incorrect discrimination in just about any public transaction, and this includes education, has been illegal for decades.  That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but it does mean that its explanatory value is greatly diminished for individuals who were, after all, born late in the Clinton administration — not in slavery or the Jim Crow era.

Consider:  The only academic requirement to be able to get into a college somewhere today is a high school diploma.  But, as this recent article discusses, there are real racial disparities in meeting even this requirement:

The question of why black men are often less competitive for jobs leads back to problems in school. Even among those without college degrees, on average black men have weaker academic skills than white men. Forty-three percent of black 17-year-olds were reading below basic proficiency in 2012, compared to only 19% of white 17-year-olds. These academic deficiencies translate into lower high-school graduation rates: 59% of black men graduate while 80% of white men do. In New York City, only 28% of black males complete high school on time; in Philadelphia, only 24% do. And black graduates, on average, have lower skill levels than white graduates.

If there are disparities in high-school graduation rates, then it will be hard to avoid disparities in college attendance rates.  Perhaps some of the former disparities can be blamed on racist teachers and racist school systems, but it is hard to imagine that in 2015 most of them can be.

Fifth, the principal reasons for the disproportions are, instead, cultural and thus not really a matter of “civil rights.”  In particular, some groups have higher out-of-wedlock birthrates than others, and as it happens these same groups also frequently put less of a premium on educational success than other groups. 

According to the most recent government statistics that I could find, 71.5 percent of African Americans are born out of wedlock, along with 66.4 percent of American Indians/Alaska Natives and 53.2 percent of Hispanics; versus 29.3 percent of non-Hispanic whites and only 17.0 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander Americans. 

Those are enormous disparities among the different racial and ethnic groups, and whether or not your parents are married when you are born makes an enormous difference in likely social outcomes, including educational outcomes.  It would actually be surprising if there were no racial disparities in education, given these marked racial disparities in out-of-wedlock birthrates and the high correlation between all kinds of social outcomes, including educational outcomes, and growing up in a home without a father. 

This truth is now recognized on both left and right

Frequently liberals have blamed social problems on “root causes” like poverty; well, there is more poverty among African Americans, so it should come as no surprise to liberals that there are more social challenges here, too.  And the disparities come as no surprise to conservatives either, though they blame both social problems like dropping out of school and illegitimacy on a common cultural “tangle of pathology,” to use Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s (another liberal’s) phrase.

There is also the problem confronting many African American children that academic success is derided by their peers as “Acting White” (a book by Stuart Buck with that title documents this unfortunate phenomenon).  Michael Barone’s book The New Americans documents the emphasis placed on educational excellence by Asian Americans (see pages 265-68).  He contrasts this with the experience of African Americans (pages 85-89) and Latinos (pages 169-74).

I am strongly in favor of addressing these cultural problems — but, again, it should not be done in a racially discriminatory way.  Out-of-wedlock birthrates, for example, have been climbing for non-Hispanic whites, too, with all the predictable and sad consequences.  There are plenty of non-Hispanic whites who fail to recognize the value of education for their children and could learn from other Americans, many of them racial or ethnic minorities, about that value.  I have pointed in my testimony today to aggregate data about different racial and ethnic groups, but only to show that the reasons for educational disparities are not about skin color or national origin per se, but instead about cultural habits.  And those cultural habits can be shared or rejected by individuals regardless of race or ethnicity.

Conclusion.  Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.  I’m happy to try to answer any questions that the Commission might have.