By Richard Vedder
Kevin Carey, of the Education Sector, is one of the better researchers and commentators on higher education in America. He works for a Democratic leaning think tank, and both of his party's leading candidates for president would do well to listen to Kevin for good advice. Now Kevin has come out with a new study that decries a very large gap in the graduation rate between blacks and whites --perhaps 20 points is typical at a high quality (e.g., Big Ten) public university (the difference between 50 and 70 percent getting their degrees in six years).
It is useful that Kevin published the study, but where the problem begins is with the critical questions: What caused this differential? What can be done to eliminate it? Kevin dismisses the notion that affirmative action-induced differential academic preparation and promise of entering students is the culprit. He notes, for example, that Florida State does not have a big differential --it found a way to equalize graduation rates whereas, for example, Michigan State did not.
I am skeptical of Kevin's skepticism. First, of course, I think of the meticulously researched study by Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, showing huge gaps in the predicted success rate of students by race, and arguing that by pushing blacks to attend schools more difficult than they can realistically succeed in, students are set up to fail.
We have done some work at CCAP on the determinants of variations in graduation rates. We note that there is a strong correlation between average entering SAT/ACT scores and graduation rates, and that the average SAT score of entering blacks is markedly lower than the average for whites. That alone makes me doubt that affirmative action policies are blameless in explaining the differential. My guess is in a race-blind admission process, fewer blacks would be admitted to most schools -- but racial differences in graduation rates would be modest or non-existent. Carey is probably correct, however, in suggesting colleges work far harder to admit blacks than to keep them and graduate them.
All of this begs for further study.