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Colleges pledge to narrow minority achievement gaps

Justin Pope

In a coordinated stab at one of higher education’s most pressing problems, some of the country’s largest university systems pledged last Wednesday to cut in half the achievement gaps for minority and low-income students on their campuses over the next eight years.

The announcement comes at a time of deep concern that, from everyday undergraduates to the ranks of elite faculty, America’s colleges and universities don’t look much like the country as a whole.

That point was also underscored last week by a new study tracking the representation of women and minority faculty in elite science departments, which found minorities are making little progress moving up the ranks. Women are faring noticeably better than five years ago, but still trail well behind men.

The 19 public university systems committed to halving by 2015 two key gaps separating low-income and minority students from others — the rates of attending college and of graduating.

Nationally, whites aged 25 to 29 are twice as likely as blacks and three times as likely as Hispanics to have a college degree. And by age 24, high-income students are eight times more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than low-income ones.

“Our nation’s fastest growing populations are our nation’s lowest achievers,” said Tom Meredith, Mississippi’s higher education commissioner. “So we agreed something had to be done.”

The plans include the giant state university systems of California, Florida, New York as well as the City University of New York. Overall, they educate about 2 million undergrads and about one-third of the nation’s low-income and minority four-year college students.

“If they’re able to turn their system patterns around, it will have a massive impact,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, a Washington-based group partnering in the program.

The systems have also committed to publicly reporting detailed data on their progress, including figures that generally have not been released, such as graduation rates for low-income students.

The question is whether the universities will go beyond the piecemeal approaches that have typified higher education’s efforts to increase diversity so far.

Acknowledging the K-12 system isn’t entirely to blame, the systems said they would work together to wrestle with obstacles on their own campuses, including rising tuition and living costs, financial aid used to lure high-achieving students but that doesn’t get to the neediest, and reforming giant, introductory courses where many students are lost.

College leaders added the effort has nothing to do with affirmative action, but rather with hard work to get college-ready students into and through college.

Plans for reaching the goal will vary from state to state. Louisiana, for instance, will work to improve high demand courses and expand a tuition discount program that encourages students to stay enrolled as they get closer to a degree.

The dearth of women and minorities in top-level science departments is an issue affecting far fewer people, but it, too, has attracted widespread attention. Many universities, including Harvard, have taken steps to try to improve conditions and mentoring for women scientists.

In the latest study, University of Oklahoma Professor Donna Nelson found signs of some gains by women. For instance, at the 100 top-rated programs, women account for 12.9 percent of all math faculty, compared to 8.3 percent five years ago. Among physics faculty, they rose from 6.6 percent to 9.1 percent, and in civil engineering from 9.8 percent to 13 percent.

Those and other fields also have seen substantial jumps in the percentage of women earning doctorates — the pipeline to professorial jobs.

But underrepresented minorities haven’t done as well. In some fields, the proportion of faculty who are black, Hispanic or Native American has actually declined — from 3.6 percent to 2.3 percent in the top-50 math programs, and from 4.3 percent to 3.6 percent in electrical engineering.

Why are the numbers of women growing more quickly? Nelson says women are reaching critical mass — for example, 20 percent of faculty — in more fields. When that happens, students have more mentors and growth accelerates.

By contrast, underrepresented minority students in the sciences and engineering are often in departments with at most one or two such faculty members.

There are just three black full professors in the top 100 computer science programs nationally. In chemistry, most of the top 100 programs have no black faculty, and only nine have two or more.

(Associated Press)