The University of Minnesota is currently sponsoring an exhibit that examines the actions of university administrators from several decades ago. The judgment of history is that these administrators, though highly respected in their time, committed racist acts and violated the civil rights of students.
Regardless whether it is decided to remove the names of these past leaders from the campus buildings they grace (or mar), the true value of history is not what it teaches us about the past, but how it informs our judgments in the present.
The median household income in Minnesota is about $63,000, unless you happen to be African-American — then it is closer to $30,000. This is the legacy of past injustices that history has set as our task to address. Black Minnesota high school graduates are doing their part by applying to college — a proven doorway to economic advancement. But, due to admission policies enacted by the present-day administration of the University of Minnesota, too many of these potential students are being barred from entry.
African-Americans make up about 10 percent of Minnesota’s 12th-graders. But they account for less than 5 percent of freshmen on the U’s Twin Cities campus.
This isn’t for lack of trying on their part.
Last year, 670 African-American high school graduates applied to the Carlson School of Business on the U’s Twin Cities campus. The U rejected 94 percent of them. While the U has chosen not to make public the acceptance rates for African-American applicants to the Twin Cities campus as a whole, we can estimate this number from the data that are available.
If you are white, you have a 50-50 chance of being accepted. If you are a person of color, your chances shrink to 1 in 3. Judging from the fact that Asians make up more than half of the students of color at the U, and because as a group they tend to have the highest high school grade-point averages and ACT scores, the acceptance rate for African-Americans is probably less than 25 percent.
While it is true that too many black students are leaving high school unprepared to succeed at the U, there are many who would do just fine but are being turned away by the administration’s use of standardized test scores.
The current administration has decided that the average ACT score for its incoming freshman class will be 28. This score is achieved by only 10 percent of test-takers nationwide, and the average score for black students is 5 points lower than that of their white counterparts.
In 2006, 35 percent of the U’s freshmen had scores in the 19-to-24 range. Last year, under the new policy, only 13 percent fell into this range. Black students are disproportionately affected by this test barrier.
The ACT test does not measure intelligence. Nor is an ACT score an accurate measure of merit, whether you define merit in terms of hard work or achievement. To be fair, the designers of this test do not claim that it measures intelligence or merit.
The composite ACT score is meant to predict how well, on average, applicants with a given score will do in college. It is not a reliable gauge for every student, and the scores are better predictors of success in some colleges than in others.
How accurately do ACT scores predict student performance at the U? Data presented at last December’s Board of Regents meeting allows us to answer this. The data provide the first-year GPAs and ACT scores for a representative body of students.
Two conclusions stand out. Students with very high ACT scores (in the 30s) do tend to have higher GPAs, and those with very low scores tend to do significantly worse.
But for the vast majority in the middle, the results are quite different. For those with a score of 28 (desirable students, according to the U’s admission policy), about three-quarters had GPAs in the range of 2.9 to 3.4. And for those with a score of 22, three-quarters had GPAs in exactly the same range.
But these latter are disproportionately African-American students, and they are now being turned away at a higher rate than 10 years ago.
The U is using a flawed test that will contribute to creating another generation of Minnesotans who have been economically marginalized based on their race.
Some 150 years ago, a number of highly respected leaders in the South introduced voting tests, supposedly to ensure that the electorate was intelligent and informed. The verdict of history is that these Jim Crow laws failed in their stated purpose, disenfranchised African-American citizens, violated their civil rights and perpetuated a society deformed by racism.
Undoubtedly, whether it takes 150 years or just a few decades, history will pass judgment on the current admission policies of the U.
But we don’t have to wait — we can judge for ourselves.
Robert Katz is an employee of the University of Minnesota libraries.