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Affirmative action comes too late

Published Aug. 27, 2005

Affirmative action in college admissions is among the most controversial issues in education, but both sides in the debate overestimate its importance. The truth is that affirmative action is largely irrelevant to increasing minority representation in higher education. The primary obstacle to getting more minority students into college is that only one in five of such students graduate from high school with the bare minimum qualifications needed even to apply to four-year colleges.

Think of the K-12 educational system as a pipeline: Students enter the pipe in preschool and, if all goes well, flow all the way through and out the other end into college. But some students "leak" out of the pipeline by dropping out of school or failing to acquire college-ready skills. And when it comes to minority students, the pipe is currently so leaky that only a trickle of those students flow into college. Expanding affirmative action policies and financial assistance is like opening the spigot at the end of the pipe wider: It's beside the point if the pipe is leaking badly. We can beef up affirmative action all we like and it won't increase the flow of minority students into college.

For students to be able to attend virtually any four-year college, they need to graduate from high school, have a set of required courses on their high school transcripts and demonstrate basic literacy. The shocking reality is that fewer than one in five minority students has passed these three hurdles and is thus "college ready."

Almost half of minority students fail to graduate from high school with a regular diploma. Students who do graduate can't apply to college unless they have taken a certain number of English, math and other courses while in high school. Virtually all colleges believe this minimum set of high school courses is necessary for students to acquire college-ready skills. More than half of minority high school graduates lack these required courses and are unable to apply to college. And among those who have graduated from high school with the right courses on their transcripts, there is another small portion that has somehow managed to pass these hurdles without possessing basic skills in reading, which colleges would expect of any minimally qualified applicant.

According to the Census, in 2000 there were approximately 1.2-million black and Hispanic 18-year-olds in the United States. Only about 631,000 of them actually graduated from high school with a regular diploma. Of these graduates, roughly 287,000 had taken the high school courses that would allow them to apply to even the least selective four-year colleges. And about 69,000 of these students could not perform at the "basic" or better level on the 12th grade reading test administered by the U.S. Department of Education, leaving 218,000 college-ready minority graduates.

In that same year, four-year colleges admitted 244,000 minority students. Thus, virtually all college-ready minority students went on to attend college, as well as some students who may not have been college-ready, or who had left school not college-ready but who caught up later in the community college system. Clearly there is not a large population of minority students who meet the minimum qualifications for college but are denied the opportunity to actually enroll.

The only strategy that can meaningfully improve minority representation in higher education is to improve the quality of the K-12 education system so that it produces more college-ready minority students. We might disagree about how the K-12 system can best be improved, but we should stop wasting our energies on heated debates over affirmative action and focus them on the source of the problem. Unless we fix the leaks in the K-12 education pipeline, no higher education policy can possibly improve minority opportunities to attend college.

Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow and Greg Forster is a senior research associate at the Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office.

Washington Post