By Deborah Bial, Ed.D.
There are close to 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. A small percentage are considered elite institutions of higher education. Degrees from these particular institutions are golden tickets, giving the recipients special access to the best opportunities in the American workforce.
Who, exactly, gets the opportunity to receive these golden tickets? In a country where the demographics are changing rapidly, we should expect its rich diversity to be reflected in all our educational institutions and certainly at our top colleges. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
SAT scores still play a significant role in determining who has access to these institutions. Many see the SAT as one of the most important parts of a college application and believe (incorrectly) that a higher score is equal to greater intelligence. Many want the SAT to be the determining arbiter of who is admitted. Though the College Board defends the SAT as a good predictor of first year GPA and even persistence in college, its most recent report shows that students with lower scores can and do compete in many instances with the same success as their high–scoring counterparts.
In 2014, The Posse Foundation took a look at the top-ranked colleges and universities in the United States to determine how many Black and Hispanic students they would need to admit each year if they were to reflect the percentage of Blacks and Hispanics in the American population. We found that the top-ranked 150 liberal arts colleges and national research universities (combined) would need approximately 50,000 Black students and 58,0000 Hispanic students entering their first–year classes each year in order to achieve this goal.
Then, we looked at how Black and Hispanic students were performing on the SAT. The College Board reported in 2014 that 9,700 Black students and 22,000 Hispanic students scored 1200 or more on the math and reading sections of the SAT. Clearly, if these top institutions continue to rely too heavily on SAT scores, they will never achieve the kind of representational diversity they say they hope to achieve.
The most selective institutions of higher education are gatekeepers to the most lucrative opportunities in the workforce. Those that care about race and also understand that students who merit admission may show their talents and capabilities in myriad ways, do better with diversity. In the absence of this, we see an unfair reliance on test scores which helps to perpetuate a power structure in the workforce that is race-based.
The U.S. Senate, in 2016, was 93 percent white. Of the country’s four-year college and university presidents, 88 percent are white. Those who own the teams in the NBA, the NFL and MLB are 98, 97 and 98 percent white, respectively. (Yet look at who the players are.)
It is no secret that industry-leading companies recruit from the most selective institutions of higher education. (And, unfortunately, some major corporations and firms ask for SAT scores when interviewing candidates to help eliminate applicants.) If the student bodies from which they are recruiting are mostly white, it is not surprising that those companies are mostly white as well. This, combined with persisting race biases in hiring and promotion, sets the stage for segregation in the workforce.
The nation’s Fortune 500 chief executive officers are almost all white and almost all male. In 2014, California State Sen. Ed Hernandez completed his annual study of senior executives in Fortune 100 companies, wondering if maybe a more diverse leadership was trickling up. He found that 88 percent of the executive teams of these companies were white. In 2014, The American Lawyer took a look at the racial breakdown of the partners at the big American law firms and found that 92 percent of them are white. In fact, in the year 2000, 88.8 percent of the attorneys at these firms were white and in 2010, a decade later, that number had hardly changed: it was 88.1 percent.
We have been way too slow in addressing the inequities that exist within the American population, a population that becomes more diverse every year. The perception that test scores like the SAT should be the most important defining factor in whether or not a student is admitted to an elite college is dangerous. The college admission process is, as it should be, a subjective one.
When putting together a new class of students, admissions experts think about establishing a community. Do they need violinists for the orchestra, a strong running back for the football team, students interested in physics or French literature? These considerations are valid. But no less important is the consideration of diversity.
We must consider race in college admissions. We must believe that admitting and graduating diverse student bodies from our best colleges and universities is critically important for the nation as a whole. We must act on this belief. Otherwise we perpetuate a kind of segregation that breeds severe inequities. And these inequities directly lead to the divisions and discontent we see in our country right now. The needs of a very diverse population cannot be adequately understood or met by a homogenous group of generally white men. We need our leaders in every industry to represent the diversity of this nation, in research and science and medicine. We need it in corporate America, in non-profits, and in government. Diverse voices at the tables where decisions are made bring the interests of everyone to the table, better represent the experiences of different groups, and result in more thoughtful, comprehensive, solutions to complex social problems.
The United States embraces the idea that it can be a meritocracy, that everyone can have the same chance to succeed if they work hard, if they study, and if they care. We cannot be content with a system that promotes stratification and exclusion. We have to figure out a way to be a national community and make sure that the American dream remains a possibility for all of its citizens.
About the Author
Deborah Bial, Ed.D. is founder of The Posse Foundation which works with top colleges and universities. She is also a MacArthur Fellow.