The Absurdity of College Admissions, Cont’d

FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman isn’t pleased with how I—or reporters at The Washington Post, Elite Daily, and The Huffington Post, among others—covered college admissions this year. The coverage is cliché and misleading, Casselman argues; it “ignores the issues most college students face.” It overlooks the fact, according to him, that the vast majority of U.S. undergraduates attend schools where admission is relatively easy, or that many of them are non-traditional students, or that nearly half of them attend community colleges.

First, I should point out that much, if not most, of The Atlantic‘s higher-education coverage has been about these issues. We’ve written about the challenges faced by single moms trying to get their college degrees. We devoted an entire cover story to community colleges. We lamented the state of public higher-education systems in states such as Louisiana, Kansas, and California. We looked at the states where high-school drop-out rates are rising despite positive trends nationwide.

That aside, I wholeheartedly agree that my three-part series isn’t obviously relevant to those Americans. As I point out almost immediately in the inaugural story, the problem I explore throughout the series—the mania of elite-college admissions—“is a crisis for the 3 percent.”

Still, while most U.S. teenagers may not be directly involved in that mania, I suspect its psychology is spreading into a growing sphere of American society. The frenzy is palpable, if only because selective colleges are incentivized to recruit students who have no chance of getting in: It boosts their position in the rankings. Meanwhile, younger and younger children are being subjected to this ruthless, competitive culture of “getting in.”

Take the way (public-school) kindergarten standards have evolved, for example. As I’ve reported before, up until the 1980s, “kindergarten was seen as a lighthearted environment where youngsters would be engaged in playful, creative activities while being gradually acclimated to basic academic topics (like shapes and colors) and skills (holding a pencil and using glue).” Then came the movement for high-stakes testing and the notion that rigor in kindergarten was key to giving kids an academic edge.

Or take the selective-admissions system for New York City’s public high schools, which I’ve written about extensively. Here’s an excerpt from my story, “The Cutthroat World of Elite Public Schools”:

New York City’s district-wide system of selective-admissions high schools—test-only and otherwise—causes headaches for parents and students across the city. “It’s not a perfect system by a long shot,” Szuflita said [Joyce Szuflita is a private consultant for families trying to navigate the education system in the city]. “If you ask any parent that was going through it right now, they would say it’s absolutely the worst system they ever saw.” Some parents have to take off work and tour as many as 20 schools. (That, ironically, is particularly difficult for the ones who work as teachers and are themselves in the classrooms being toured by fellow parents.)

As for the students, “you’re given a cornucopia of beautiful and horrible choices and then held up, feeling like you’re being assessed and placed and feeling like your life is not your own,” Szuflita said. “It feels very uncertain, and it feels like there are great triumphs and disasters.” In 2012, according to Szuflita, about half of the more than 77,000 eighth graders who applied to public schools got their first choices, while three-fourths of them got one of their top-three picks. But 10 percent of the students didn’t get a match. That’s nearly 8,000 students.

“With the variety,” Szuflita said, “comes tremendous anxiety.”

Where Are All the Kidcasts?

Updated on April 1, 2016

“The guilt of a parent who puts the television on to pacify their children is one of the most powerful emotional forces in existence,” lamented Gimlet’s Matt Lieber in a recent panel on podcasting. An audience member had just asked if the industry was planning on “growing the audience younger”—did the panelists (all audio specialists) think kids would even engage with podcasts? “A podcast aimed at 3-10-year-olds that parents could actually tolerate—if you could do it right—would be an unbelievable hit,” Lieber replied. The other panelists agreed, chiming in with anecdotes about their teenagers’ addiction to the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, and bemoaning the lack of original audio content made for younger kids.

Apple may have discontinued the device that gave the podcast its name, but the medium has exploded in recent years. In 2014, Sarah Koenig’s Serial reached 5 million downloads or streams faster than any podcast before it. That same year, NPR saw a 75 percent increase in podcast downloads, and three new podcasting networks were born. A recent report by Edison Research noted that the number of Americans listening to at least one podcast each month has grown almost 25 percent since 2015.

And yet, while adults and teens could easily fill their waking hours with audio, kids would struggle to fill a few. The crowded Kids & Family section of iTunes has surprisingly little to offer children, save for a handful of audiobook-like storytelling podcasts, and some programs that spin off major brands (like Sesame Street Podcast, Despicable Me, and Nick Jr.).

The obvious follow-up question is why? Podcasts for kids seem like such a no-brainer. Podcasts could offer a solution to kids overdosing on dreaded “screentime,” a way to entertain and educate kids without fear of burning their retinas or letting their imaginations go to ruin. Plus, they could fit seamlessly into existing routines, filling long car trips or down-time before bed.

“One argument we’ve heard is that kids won’t sit through podcasts if they’re not being engaged visually,” said Molly Bloom, one of the producers of the children’s podcast Brains On!, echoing a sentiment I heard many times while researching this article. “But kids are used to hearing stories all the time.”

Practically a unicorn in the podcasting world, Brains On! is a science podcast for children with the motto “we’re serious about being curious.” Channeling early Radiolab, each episode seeks to answer a question posed at the start—Why are no two snowflakes the same? Why does tickling make you laugh? What makes paint stick?—through a series of interviews. The questions come from intrepid young reporters, with a different child co-hosting the show each week. The answers come from adult experts in different fields: snake handlers, food scientists, astronauts, and so on.

Since early 2015, Brains On! has consistently claimed one of the top spots in the Kids & Family section of iTunes. The podcast’s loyal audience of 6-to-12 year-olds (and their parents) supply the producers—three folks from public radio: Bloom, Marc Sanchez, and Sanden Totten—with the questions to be explored in future episodes. Each week the producers receive numerous emails, tweets, and handwritten letters from kids, thankful parents, and teachers who use the program to meet certain curriculum requirements. The same is true of Tumble, another science podcast for children, produced by the husband-and-wife duo Marshall Escamilla and Lindsay Patterson—a teacher and science reporter, respectively.

Although it’s hard to pin down data on listeners, it’s clear that kids are already tuning in—and not just to Brains On! and Tumble. Public-radio producers told me that kids as young as six are already listening to select episodes of podcasts targeted at adults, like Radiolab, Invisibilia, and the tongue-in-cheek tribute to radio-of-the-past, Thrilling Adventure Hour. Older kids need no encouragement: Freakonomics and Serial both have substantial teen followings, and teenage girls are the primary audience of Welcome to Night Vale, a comedic show about a fictional, conspiracy-laden town.

The absence of images in podcasts seems to be a source of their creative potential. Without visuals, listeners are required to fill the gaps—and when these listeners are children, the results can be powerful. Numerous studies have found that children between the ages of seven and 13 respond more creatively to radio stories than to stories shown on television. Audio stories prompted kids to draw more novel pictures, think up more unique questions, and solve problems in a more imaginative way than did TV tales.

Not only are children listening and responding creatively, observations suggest they’re also learning. When Patterson, one of the producers of the children’s science podcast Tumble, conducted a series of focus groups, she found that kids as young as six focused for the duration of her 15-minute show. Minutes after hearing a podcast about spiders, she saw a group of kids huddled around a dead wasp, examining it and debating what had killed it. When she asked if they normally led backyard investigations, they said no. “They had listened, and they really got it,” she wrote in a recent piece for Current, on the value of podcasts for kids

Meanwhile, the public-radio veteran Monica Brady-Myerov recalled a moment in the car with her 9-year-old daughter: “We were listening to NPR, as we do every day, and my third-grader asked a smart question about a story we were listening to.” The realization that her daughter was learning from audio led Brady-Myerov to found Listen Current, a company working to bring public radio into the classroom by curating content and providing resources to help teachers meet curricular requirements.

When it comes to using public radio in the classroom, Brady-Myerov believes three-to-five-minute segments are most effective, leaving the teacher significant time to build a lesson around the audio. “That’s not to say children can’t or won’t listen longer,” she said, “that’s just what we’ve found works in the school setting.”

A promotional image for Short & Curly (Short & Curly / Australian Broadcasting Company)

That said, a number of schools have already begun incorporating longer podcasts into their curricula, to great success. In the past year, the producers of Brains On! have heard from first- to sixth-grade teachers in Detroit, Florida, and Wisconsin who use the 15-to-30 minute podcast in their classrooms. Inspired by the show, one class in South Carolina even produced its own podcast on bugs. Meanwhile, high-school teachers in California, Connecticut, Chicago, and a handful of other states have been using Radiolab, This American Life, StoryCorps, and, overwhelmingly, Serial. The English teacher and Atlantic contributing writer Michael Godsey’s 10th- and 11th-graders were so enthralled by Koenig’s investigative podcast that they began skipping other classes to listen to it. And, as Godsey reported in a recent piece for The Atlantic, TeachersPayTeachers.com (a site where educators can purchase lesson plans) saw a 21 percent increase in downloads of plans related to podcasts in 2014, and a 650 percent increase in 2015.

The Value of Using Podcasts in Class


Research further supports the benefits of audio learning for children. When words are spoken aloud, kids can understand and engage with ideas that are two to three grade-levels higher than their reading level would normally allow. Aural learning is particularly helpful for students who have dyslexia, are blind, or for whom English is their second language, who might struggle with reading or find it helpful to follow a transcript while listening.

Clearly children failing to engage with audio is not the problem.

Perhaps the most convincing argument I encountered for the dearth of kid-targeted audio is the lack of precedent. “[Creating content for kids] has been a problem for everybody—terrestrial radio, public radio—for a long time. No one wants to touch this, even though it’s really interesting content,” said Caitlin Thompson, the director of content for Acast, a podcast-hosting platform.

“There [are] a lot of natural barriers within the public-radio infrastructure to getting new content on the radio,” explained Patterson. Hurdles include a lengthy piloting process that determines if a show should be afforded airtime, and oftentimes-steep distribution fees. “New content for a new audience would be even more difficult,” she added.

Though podcasting lacks such barriers—requiring little more than ideas, a microphone or two, some simple audio-editing software, and wi-fi—it failed to fill the kid-programming void. When the medium emerged in the early 2000s, it consisted mostly of software developers and public-radio personalities making podcasts for people in their industries about topics related to those industries—namely, media and tech. “People were making podcasts that appealed to other people like them,” explained Andy Bowers, head of content at Panoply, Slate’s podcast network. “They say, write what you know, I think people were podcasting what they know—their own interests.” As podcasting became more accessible and a greater number of people entered the sphere, podcasting on a greater range of topics, Bowers believes this trend continued. “And of course, 5- and 6-year-olds can’t really produce their own podcasts,” he added. (They can, however, host their own podcasts. In the children’s program The Show About Science, a 5-year-old named Nate interviews chemists, punk rockers, his mom, and more about animals, medicine, and other important scientific matters).

A promotional image for Short & Curly (Short & Curly / Australian Broadcasting Company)

Difficulty obtaining and comparing data about podcast audiences—a struggle felt throughout the medium—may help explain why this gap has yet to be filled. The numerous methods that exist for downloading and streaming podcasts (including mobile apps, desktop apps, and shows’ own websites) combined with a lack of measurement guidelines make it almost impossible to accurately gauge listener metrics. That the lion’s share of podcasts is downloaded doesn’t help: once a podcast is downloaded, all ties are severed and producers can’t know who’s listening, where they’re listening, for how long they’re listening, or if they listen to the shows they download at all. Without such analytics, podcasts are often seen as a less appealing medium for advertisers, many of which have been forced to rely on outdated methods like direct-response advertising—e.g., ads that promise 10 percent off a purchase if you enter a certain offer code.

When it comes to adults, listener surveys can help fill the data void. “Adults get back to you, they tweet at you, they leave voicemails, they tell you what they like and don’t like, what they listen to,” explained Thompson. “With kids the interaction is a lot trickier. The feedback loop is broken or, at least, it’s not as powerful as in other forms of media.” As a result, kids programs might struggle more than others to monetize.

These aren’t insurmountable hurdles, though. Children’s television has been highly profitable since the ‘90s when programming proliferated, dedicated networks for children emerged, and shows began targeting more specific age brackets. Clearly, there are advertisers out there who believe children influence family spending and who want to capture this audience. As Bowers explained: “Anyone producing content for kids would obviously want to be careful who their advertisers are, but there are a lot of advertisers out there who are interested and might fit the mission of a given show.” One company that’s advertised in Brains On! and the Panoply parenting podcast Mom and Dad are Fighting is Little Passports, which sends children a suitcase of goodies to help them follow two fictional explorers around the world and learn about geography, travel, and language as they go. “All the feedback we’ve got from listeners is that kids love these things and parents love them too, because they’re really educational,” he added.

That the arguments for the lack of kidcasts are so unsatisfying provides hope; it seems there’s little to stop the spread of child-friendly audio. “With podcasting, this could all change in six months,” said Thompson. “You don’t need to go through a lengthy piloting process with a station in order to use their satellite. You can control the distribution.” And, after you’ve invested in microphones and editing software, the production costs can be almost non-existent. Arguably the greatest cost is people’s time.

(Short & Curly / Australian Broadcasting Company)

From a marketing perspective, it seems like a smart move for them; interested children are the future public radio audience, why not get them started young? Australian broadcasters have already taken steps in the right direction: last week, the Australian Broadcast Corporation launched a podcast for 7-12 year-olds. Called Short & Curly, the show explores curly ethical questions—Is stealing music and jokes really stealing? Should chimps have the same rights as kids? Is it ever okay to fight back against a bully?—in 15-to-20-minute episodes. A couple of producers I spoke to in the states ]mentioned they’re also considering producing more kid-friendly content, but were as yet unable to offer more information.

As for adults, the programming possibilities are almost endless. “Our podcast is only half an hour long,” Bloom said, “and there are lots of hours in a day to listen to podcasts.”

Why Not Take a Black Studies Class?

Why do college students take, or fail to take, black studies courses? Looking back on their educations, how do they feel about their choices? The correspondence that follows covers the range of responses that Atlantic readers offered to those questions. Many of the emails include insights that may be useful to students choosing next semester’s schedule or to ethnic studies educators hoping to attract more pupils.

The perspectives vary widely. Some reference my recent exchange with a black Yale student and a followup post soliciting the correspondence below.

* * *

Some emailers who never took a black studies course felt that they couldn’t afford to spend time or money on credits outside their major and unrelated to their career.

Here’s an example:

I am not a Yale Student. I am a 29-year-old accounting major at Davenport University in Michigan, which is probably as far from Yale as you can get while still being a college student. However, I still found this question interesting, because to me, it is a very good example of exactly why so many people in the world do not understand campus protests.

Simply put, it is very difficult for many of us to understand how students “privileged” enough to be attending Yale can have that much to complain about. Now, I do not mean to make light of issues of racism, sexism, free speech, and the various other serious things at hand… Yet the question asked still upset me in a way, because for most students the answer is simple: we can’t. If anything, I already hate that I’m required to take certain classes that have nothing to do with my major. I can barely afford them, and scarcely have the time for them. I am working two jobs to pay my way through school, and regularly have 80-90 hour weeks.

This makes it a struggle for me to understand why I should put aside my own problems and desperate struggles to learn more about someone else’s. I would love it if I had the time and money and connections to attend a school like Yale for 5 or 6 years (or more) and take every interesting elective. African American studies would certainly be among them. But few people in this country, and I suspect that few students who are fortunate enough to attend Yale, can afford to do this.

I do not mean to say that I merely have no time or interest in ‘thought’ based courses such as this, but simply anything that doesn’t involve my major. The historical ideal of college may have been to give every student a broad education. To prepare them for the world. But that is simply no longer the point for most college students. We went to college not because we had time to learn, go to parties, and grow as people, but because we had to if we wanted to advance in our lives and find any level of economic security. I went to school to learn about Accounting. That’s my job, I like it, and I’m good at it. I didn’t want to take classes on advertising, advanced English composition, geology, or diversity in society, but I did, because I had to. It’s often more important today to have a diploma from a decent institution than to actually know things.

And that is why most people go to college. It’s not to gain a better understanding of their fellow man, to learn about society, to challenge their own perceptions and privileges. It’s to survive in the world. That may well be a tragedy, but it’s one most people face every day. And it makes it awfully hard to sympathize or understand protests at our most elite universities, people we generally view as the very faces of privilege and wealth.

…Most of us can only shake our heads and wonder what life is like for those who have time and energy to study what they want, rather than what they need.

  * * *

An engineer who took two black studies classes at Virginia Tech recommends that others do the same, despite having experienced an uncomfortable moment in one of the classes:

The first class: I signed up for it after I was encouraged to do so by the professor who hung out at the coffee shop where my then boyfriend worked. The course, “Black Aesthetics,” focused on the portrayal of blacks in film. We saw excerpts from Birth of a Nation. That was pretty horrifying. Taking it made me more attentive and critical of the media I consumed.

The second course was: “Black Women in the U.S.”

The teacher (Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd) is amazing. I had one of the Top Ten Uncomfortable Moments Of My Life, when we were discussing tokenism and I said … Condoleezza Rice. I wasn’t attacked personally or yelled at or anything, but the room went silent. That roaring vacuum kind of silence that’s sucking into a single point, and that point is in your chair! Then people explained why I was wrong. I learned about my privilege and entitlement, but it’s not like me or my failings were the focus of the class. It let me be more objective and honest with myself.

This class was much more personal than the other, but I loved it.

Take a class! That way you’re not hearing these concepts for the first time when you or someone you know feel under the spotlight and/or defensive. I learned the (academic) language of racism. I learned how, by that definition, I will always be benefitting from systemic racism and will always be racist in that sense. It stung, but I adjusted my framework and moved past it.

I also learned that I can change my personal prejudices, but that’s pretty useless against systemic racism. There were times when I felt uncomfortable realizing things about myself, but I used that discomfort to grow.

* * *

A black woman avoided African American Studies because she didn’t want to focus on the marginalization of blacks in her coursework and felt that the courses would:

Bria Godley presents the purpose of taking an Af-Am course as a means to better “articulate injustices, no matter how nuanced” using “the vocabulary and theoretical framework that these classes and articles” provide. It’s not as a means of understanding African-Americans beyond the seemingly overriding historical context of slavery, segregation, and systemic racism, but as a means to sharpen how one engages those topics.

As a black person, these topics are not new to me; they are coded into my very existence. As a college graduate who majored in English literature, I avoided Af-Am classes for that very reason. If all an African-American Studies or Literature course can offer me is a better way to talk about marginalization, then I understand why some white students would be reluctant to take it. Just as many black students wish for their institutions to be more inclusive, so too do I wish that a course devoted to African-American scholarship and life would depict the nuances of being black in America beyond injustice and brutality.

Despite Godley using “people of color” and “minority” in her discussion of racial issues at Yale, she is single-mindedly focused on black students. Godly wants white students to be able to empathize with black students by taking courses that will, ostensibly, allow white students to feel the pain of historical exclusion and racism. But empathy isn’t limited to understanding the pain of another, or in Godley’s view, black people. It means recognizing the same triumphs and failures, the same love stories, the same traditions, the same feats of imagination. Godley  demands white student recognition and participation, but what about the fellowship of other people of color and vice versa? It escapes me how Godley expects empathy when she rejects the possibility that the black experience is not just mired in existential agony, and that there are, in fact, experiences that are not African-American.

Also, and I find this peculiar, does Yale really present itself as a “diverse” institution? To me, it is an institution of extraordinary, primarily white, privilege. It is distinctly exclusive. That’s the Yale, and Ivy League, brand. So maybe the word Godley, and this movement in general, means is inclusive.

* * *

Many who decided against taking any ethnic studies courses did so because they worried about uncomfortable moments. “I didn’t want to be a target in the class,” one emailer wrote. “The ethnic studies students were infamous for verbally and emotionally abusing anyone of a different ethnicity, let alone a White kid. The only exception was the Native American, then known as American Indian studies students.”

Among white students who actually took ethnic studies classes, a few reported being treated as if they didn’t belong by other students while many reported being welcomed. Here’s a correspondent who says he was treated like an outsider by a few students:

I took a black culture studies in my freshman year at GWU that focused on the history of African-Americans in Washington DC. My primary academic interest is in history and black history is one of the areas in which I felt I needed more study… the professor teaching the class is renowned for his knowledge of American history and his teaching style is very conducive to learning. I was the only white male in the course, a fact that was commented on by several other students throughout. The tone of these comments ranged from amusement to barely disguised contempt.

Some of the comments implied that I had no right to be there in the class: “Why are you even taking this class?”Others seemed to imply that I had some kind of secret agenda by taking the class: “It’s suspicious that a white male would take this course.”

Perhaps the most egregious: “This class isn’t for you and you’re taking he place of someone who would appreciate it more.” I must say that the folks that made these types of comments were a very small minority and most of the class was either supportive or indifferent towards my presence. The course itself was very interesting and I felt as though it broadened my horizons in terms of understanding the history of Washington DC through a lens that is different from my own. I ended the semester with a better understanding of the black history of the city.

Here’s one who was welcomed:

I did not have the honor of attending Yale, but I did take a black studies class at the University of Texas at Austin…Now, as you could easily find out from my digital footprint, I am a privileged, cisgendered, white, professional male, which as your article suggests, may have prejudiced me against taking these classes. So why did I take them? In short, I loved them. The professors were brilliant. The assignments were engaging and intellectually stimulating. And the class conversations were lively and interesting (contrary to what some might expect, I could speak my mind in these classes without fear of privilege-shaming or anything of the sort).

It’s fascinating, this perspective that there are just too many other interesting classes. I can’t begrudge a person for freely choosing courses they want to take. Certainly I enjoyed Black Feminist Theory & Praxis infinitely more than some of the required science credit courses I took.

But that’s me…

You could have an intro course—such as the Cultural Studies & Gender Studies course I took—that would introduce students to many frameworks for critical analysis that might then inspire them to delve deeper, or might not.

For me, that class was Cultural Anthropology, which I took the first semester in college. That class blew my mind. I still remember the first day of our TA break-out class, when our TA walked to the blackboard, flipped the world map upside-down, and asked us why we didn’t represent the world this way all the time? After all, the universe has no sense of up or down. The implication, of course, is that we put the Northern hemisphere on top to perpetuate the North’s hegemony over the South. Check out The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore—he uses a South-side up map.

Recently, there has been a kind of cultural backlash to campus liberalism. Some of what I read rubs me the wrong way. Would I have been as welcome in those classes I took 10-15 years ago if I were taking them today?

I don’t know.

And from those classes I do know that part of my reaction is inevitably informed by my position of privilege. I do not invest a lot of emotional energy into feeling guilty about my privilege, but I do think that there is a valuable, fundamental lesson that cuts across many of these leftist schools of thought—context distorts your perspective, whether race, gender, class, age, and so on, and so on. To understand this, I think, makes you a better critical thinker and communicator, and potentially benefits everyone. I would not favor making a black studies course mandatory, and I do worry that some progressive campus movements may have taken their agendas too far. But then again, I’m not on campus anymore, and as I learned from these classes, there is wisdom in lived experience that often cannot be captured in an article or a book.

Here’s another correspondent who had a good experience:

I just read “Why Didn’t You Take a Black Studies Course in College?” I’d like to share my experience as an undergrad at Miami of Ohio. I graduated in 2004 and haven’t been back since, so everything that I have to say is really only a reflection of what the school was like about 15 years ago for a white guy trying to get a B.A. in mass communications.

At the time MU required at least all of its liberal arts students to take at least one class that was, I believe (the exact details are a little hazy), referred to as a “non-dominant perspective” class. That class didn’t have to be a black studies class. It could have been a feminist theory course or a Native American-centric history class. The point at the time was to get the (almost overwhelming white) student body to think outside their own experience. So I ended up taking the intro black studies class.

While I don’t remember many specifics, I do recall that it was the only class where white students weren’t the majority. Most likely (and excluding large, lecture-style courses), it was the only class I took in four years that had more than one or two students of color. I remember the professor beginning each class by making us repeat after him, “White people are not guilty. Black people are not victims.” I also remember being consciously aware at the end of the semester that I now had a new lens with which to view the world. I may not have perfectly understood the concepts and what I did understand no doubt lacked a lot of nuance, but it was one of the few times I actually recognized feeling, mentally at least, a bit broader. So, Miami’s plan worked on me…

Miami at the time was a very white, politically and temperamentally conservative, medium-sized university pretty much in the middle of nowhere. If you weren’t forced to consider life outside of your own experiences, you probably weren’t going to, either because of a lack of interest or opportunity. I didn’t have any real sense that the majority of the students I knew had much more than an abstract level of understanding that perspectives outside white/middle-upper class existed or were valid. That’s where I was at when I entered the dorms. So, while I personally think it would be great if every student at Miami, at the end of their college career, possessed, “the educational and theoretical foundation to address race” that probably would have been pushing it. Just making some of us aware that there is an educational and theoretical foundation to address race was something of an accomplishment.

* * *

A Wesleyan graduate argues that white people have a lot to gain by taking African American lit courses:

…as a recent college graduate whose primary focus wasn’t African-American studies, I can say that the three English classes I took with a focus on the African-American literary tradition were central to my education.

Here are two reasons why:

1. Although African-American literature is often in conversation with white American literature and the literary traditions that birthed it, it’s also its own complete, rich tradition with its own set of theoretical and narrative concerns. White students of literature won’t just get “ur-theories of race” from African-American literature courses; they stand to benefit from valuable perspectives in structuralism, narrative theory, feminist criticism, and other critical traditions. These are perspectives that they won’t get anywhere else.

2. The second (and bigger) benefit white students stand to gain derives from the unfortunate dynamic that Bria Godley points out: our underrepresentation in these classes. White students with a certain level of academically-inclined verbal reasoning skills will have the option of sleepwalking through many undergraduate humanities courses and getting decent grades without stepping too far outside of their comfort zone. Even if they struggle with the material, they can rest assured that their classmates are struggling too. This won’t be the case in a capably taught AfAm lit class. I wasn’t the only white student in those classes by far, but it was still a big ego-deflater to notice that many of my black classmates had a leg up on me in understanding those texts by virtue of their skin color and the experiences that came with it. I made mistakes in classroom discussions and was respectfully called out.

To engage with the material, I had to try to combine critical thinking with humility and empathy, a practice that is foundational to a good liberal education. White students might not have to develop this practice unless they’re themselves the minority in the classroom, or are otherwise confronted by their racial and cultural backgrounds in an academic setting.

* * *

A college professor with a PhD in critical rhetorical theory posits that outside the Ivy League, some students avoid ethnic studies classes because they perceive them as lacking rigor:

I think Yale is too unusual a setting to draw much from these anecdotes. Obviously, if you have a student body admitted under extremely selective criteria being taught by the kind of faculty Yale attracts, I would expect these courses to be rigorous and theoretically informed.

However, I think the perception of black studies courses at other institutions (justly or not) is that the course may not be rigorous or theoretically driven. Take the public controversy over the University of North Carolina using such courses to keep basketball players eligible. In talking to many of my students and advisees over the years, I hear the same refrain: those classes are not rigorous, will not prepare students for graduate school, and are not deeply grounded in theory. I can’t say how much is true, but I’ve seen the same student perception at multiple institutions.

The same correspondent believes that some students are deterred by “the trend toward weaponization of identity politics both on campus and in social media,” writing:

My students have lamented the overuse of the phrase “check your privilege” from their peers, and I could see how the proliferation of such discourse might lead to simple avoidance of contexts that might feature more of the same. I think there is a very important discussion that needs to happen about how social movements and subaltern groups can cultivate and welcome allies from across identity boundaries.

* * *

Another correspondent feels torn about ethnic studies classes despite having enjoyed one:

I am white, and completed my bachelors degree in English at Bowie State University, a historically black college.  I started my degree at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a school that was predominately white. By far the best class I ever took (either undergrad or graduate) was a required Seminar in African-American Lit. course I took my junior year.

Quite simply, we read fiction, and talked about it.  

While there were several white students in the class, most of the students and our professor, Dr. Virginia Guilford, was black.  I was exposed to great writers I had never heard of before, and we had some real tense, but meaningful conversations over the course of the semester.  Not only that, I think it is always instructive for white people to see African-Americans disagree and debate with each other, which also happened quite a bit.  It opens up your world to the richness of the black experience.  

I would recommend that experience to anybody.

Here’s the problem—that happened in 1992.  Things were a lot less political.  No one threw out buzzwords like “white privilege” to shut down debate.  No one was demonized or vilified for saying the wrong thing, even though there were some very intense discussions.  It wasn’t a zero-sum game, and if someone had tried to make it so, our professor would have shut it down.  

She was really an outstanding teacher. I can imagine why many white students now wouldn’t want to take a African-American studies course.  Why get your brains beat out every day? Today’s academic climate doesn’t seem to be about discourse; it seems to be about bludgeoning.  In my heart, I think every college student should be required to take an African-American studies course. However, in my head, I know that these days when an institution tries to bureaucratize “diversity” or “inclusion”, it typically backfires. There probably aren’t enough Dr. Guilford’s in the world.

* * *

Yet another student avoided the classes after perceiving an orthodoxy with which they disagreed:

I attended a small liberal-arts school, not an Ivy, but never even considered taking an ethnic studies course… I think there is a profound disconnect between the prescriptive and descriptive aspects of ethnic studies. Its description of institutional racism rightly centers the particular experiences of minorities, bringing forward their individual stories of discrimination, stereotyping, and victimization. However, its social prescriptions tend to be all-encompassing, programs like affirmative action and mandatory college curricula that leave little room for individual variation.

And as the tempo of anti-racist activism has justifiably increased in recent years, the prescriptive side has engulfed the descriptive side, such that it now centers only the individuals whose experiences reinforce its preferred policy platform. Bria Godley’s statement that she “question(s) the utility of diversity of opinion when the goal is to present a clear, unified front against an oppressor” exemplifies this latter approach.

The problem is that individualized descriptions should support fluid responses, ones that change and react to people’s subjective experiences.

As a Filipino-American, I have experienced racial discrimination, albeit in ways subtler and less injurious than that directed at Black people. But I’m also a survivor of mental illness, and the intersections between those (and other) aspects of my identity mean my story radically differs from the usual narratives. My pursuit of social change has therefore been equally distinct – shaped by contact with stories both very different from and eerily similar to mine, and people with whom I’ve agreed and vehemently disagreed. It didn’t seem like the classes offered would do the same.

By and large, I don’t have a problem with the blanket solutions being prescribed by today’s anti-racist movement. But I do feel alienated by way its narratives are ostensibly informed by people’s stories, even as those with nonconforming experiences are pushed away. It seems to privilege the need for people to share (certain kinds of) pain over the need to overcome the systems which inflict (all kinds of) it. I’m not sure if it’s possible to present a unified front against an oppressor without diversity of opinion.

* * *

Another correspondent who makes the case for African American studies praised how his professors handled the subject, and posited that avoiding ideological orthodoxy is key:

I am a 2013 grad of Bates College, and majored in History while minoring in African-American Studies. I am a white male. My African-American Studies classes were some of my favorite I have ever taken at any level of education, and I am convinced that those classes are essential in order to better appreciate the racial issues that still exist today. Minoring in African-American Studies was one of the best decisions I made.

Story time: On the first day of a class called Black Feminist Thought I walked into class and immediately realized that I was the only male in a class of forty. That was initially intimidating, but it ended up being perhaps my favorite class. That class taught me about subjects that I would otherwise never have confronted in a traditional academic setting like male and female sexuality, racial and gender identity, and countless others.

I also gained an enormous appreciation for respecting others’ ideas. As a white male in an otherwise entirely female class that focused on African-American thought, it would have been incredibly easy for the group to shut me out as the ignorant Other in the room (case in point: the week we spent discussing how rape is an expression of white male power. Awkward). However, I ended up being one of the more vocal students in the room, and genuinely felt that people were there to listen and think rather than shut down people who didn’t agree. This strikes me as indescribably important given the way certain college campuses are trending now.

I believe these classes are crucial in today’s world.

However, their successful implementation relies on them being taught as thought exercises, and not as indoctrinations of an ideology. I am a firm, almost fanatical believer in moral relativism, and these kinds of classes certainly run the risk of denying that by suppressing all schools of thought other than the one they teach (think of the language you hear from the activists who demand the creation of these classes). If they are taught as vehicles to foster critical thinking skills and impart a greater understanding of racial and cultural issues in America, they will succeed. If they are taught as little more than single-minded cult meetings, they will meet stiff resistance, not be taken seriously, and fail.

* * *

Some correspondents who doubted the rigor of black studies weren’t devaluing that particular field in isolation so much as the humanities in general. Here’s how one emailer put it:

Especially when I was younger, I gravitated to fields with “objective” answers and data. I took only the bare minimum of humanities classes required to graduate, and I think I lost out on exposure to ideas of bias and personal stories in the process. I also completely missed how much ideas of objectivity are influenced by the dominant cultural narrative. On the hubris front, I am aware that I felt like I already understood racism, and so probably felt like an introductory college class wouldn’t be worth my time. I knew about blackface being a bad idea, and enough historical context to understand why. I felt like I would have argued for abolition of slavery in the 1850s had I been alive then. I had read all of six books by authors of color while I was in high school, plus a play. I was doing better than my white friends, so I didn’t need to search out anything else.

I’ve since broadened my outlook. I actively try to include a wider range of people and media sources in my regular consumption. I have started studying history and reading fiction in my spare time. And I’ve made a wider range of friends and acquaintances. I wish I had been pushed to do this earlier, or had understood better my own blind spots. But it’s better late than never, and my life is definitely better now than before I made these efforts.

* * *

Other correspondents were turned off by the perception that ethnic and gender studies classes were aimed at indoctrination. Here’s one email that reflects that perspective:

My daughter is currently a student at the University of Washington, Seattle campus and will be graduating this summer in Civil Engineering. She will be continuing for her Masters, specializing in Structural Engineering.

She had been interested in taking some of the Women’s Studies classes, which sounded interesting. I suggested that she talk to some of her peers in the honors program to see what their experience with the classes was before she signed up. She did, and immediately decided that she had no interest in taking any of the Women’s or various Ethnic Studies classes. It appeared to her and her honors peers that many of the classes were ideologically driven and that one’s grades were more dependent upon your absorption and regurgitation of the professor’s ideological viewpoint than mastery of the material. Instead, she took work on the theory and structure of the mind and its relation to the brain, and creative writing.

Here’s another:

I didn’t take any area studies courses at Pomona. I should have been an English major, because I loved literature first and foremost, but outside of language classes and philosophy, I stayed out of the humanities. All for the same reason: I found them intellectually brittle. For example, I took a course in art history — a survey course — to satisfy a GE requirement. I was doing well in philosophy, but I kept getting atrocious grades in art history. I decided for the final project I’d just write whatever I thought the prof wanted to hear. Exasperated, I called it “Women as Food”.

I think I compared Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (arguing that the hips in the painting were more suggestive of the female form than the male, which was ridiculous, but I had to say something, so I pinned it on Goya’s latent misogyny), Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, and some 18th century painting where I claimed a woman dressed in pink was wrapped up like a bon bon. I hadn’t cracked a B in the course up to that point. I got on A on that final paper. The prof wrote in the margins that it was testimony to how far I’d come along in the course. I didn’t mean a single word of any of it. It would have been an act of nihilism to put myself through that again.

And this student explained that his willingness to take a black studies course turned largely on whether he believed open inquiry and discussion would be permitted:

To be blunt, critical race and gender studies have developed a reputation for being overly dogmatic and political.  You can argue there is reason and value for this, but it’s also hard to deny that it would be a deterrent to someone who was taking a survey class to get a basic grounding in the subject.  And, since we’re talking about a decision to take a class, rather than whether the class would be good, reputation has some bearing.  If I thought that a class on environmental studies was going to impress on me a full-blown environmental justice agenda, I would probably have the same reaction.  The same could be said of a religion class.  

Here are a few examples:  

Can I comfortably argue, that, say, cultural appropriation is a concept that has some utility (I think it’s useful with things like Native American headdresses and the Bindi, where you’re taking an object of highly spiritual significance and using it as a fashion statement), but that claiming, say, only black people can wear cornrows is taking it too far and becomes a detriment to the sharing of culture necessary for a pluralistic society?

Can I argue that, while, of course, people should be careful when writing about cultures other than their own, there is a rich tradition of literature that comes from an outside perspective?  “Democracy and America,” widely considered the most profound book ever on the U.S., is written by a Frenchman. “Black Like Me,” where a white reporter underwent treatments to appear black and traveled through the south for six weeks, also had a profound impact on me… I love talking about race and culture, but that reality is often messy and, at first glance, somewhat counter-intuitive.  

* * *

Several readers from older generations shared their stories too. This reader took a black studies course back in the 1980s at Dartmouth with visiting professor Addison Gayle, Jr.:

It was one of the best courses I took in college. I’m the son of a white American father and Japanese mother, and grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Richmond, California. When I arrived at Dartmouth, the anti-apartheid South African divestiture movement was in full swing. The place of women and Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos on campus was the topic of ongoing discussions, writing, and protests.

After a short while, coming from a public California high school to a place populated by the sons (and a few daughters) of Exeter and Andover, I came to understand why the world was so fucked up. One of the reasons that hit me as I was canvassing dorms for signatures calling on the college to divest was that the rich and powerful are, more often than not, racists to their core. Taking the Black Studies course was borne out of trying to find some fellow students with a critical view of the world and their place in it, students who did not unquestioningly accept their privilege as a natural right. What the Black Studies course taught me was political, economic, and intellectual history that was not available in the standard courses in the history and political science departments…

A reader asked, “But is African American studies more important than understanding the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy, or the likely effects of climate change, or the impacts of oil prices on U.S. policy in the Middle East, or the feminist critique of modern capitalism?” For an American the answer is clearly, “Yes.” Asking that question betrays a lack of awareness of American history that serves as an indictment of the standard Ivy League education, absent Black Studies.

And this reader relates his mindset as a college student in the 1970s:

As a South Asian American who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, I never would’ve even considered taking a course in “Black Studies” or any other kind of ethnic studies, even if it had been offered when I was in college in the late 70s. (U. of Chicago, if that matters – and it might – due to the conservative nature of the institution: I suspect UC was a Johnny-come-lately in this regard.) What I did take a lot of was History, including American history.

And it’s just about impossible to have any grasp of American history without learning a whole lot about the antebellum South, as well as the role of women as well various other ethnic groups (e.g. E. Asians in the West Coast, Chicanos in the S.W., and of course Native Americans). Or – for that matter – understanding the struggle of non-WASP people generally to become accepted. You’d be hard-pressed stumble across  the acronym “WASP” in common parlance these days, but I distinctly recall that it was a fairly big deal when America elected its first Catholic *and* (?) Irish President (JFK). Nativism and ethnic prejudice are simply two sides of the same coin. Think: marijuana laws or the “red scare” of the 1920s.

Your piece seems to be premised on the notion that Black Studies helps non-African-Americans understand what it’s like to be African American. Hmm, I think I already had that one figured out, because I was effectively “Black” to most people of European origin. Even among my classmates who did recognize “Indian” as a distinct ethnic group, few could find India on a map, and most were unaware that “east” Indians were entirely distinct from Native Americans. Outside of a few places in the country (such as California or perhaps NYC), there were only two ethnic groups. If you weren’t “white,” you were “black” by default.

This state of affairs still persists in the UK, where S. and sometimes even E. Asians are considered “black.” That said: no amount of “Black Studies” would’ve given me an understanding of the experience of having much darker skin, and kinky hair. Ask any African-American woman about the hair issue. Remember the barber shop scene in Spike Lee’s movie, Do the Right Thing? (Caveat: I am giving that scene short shrift here, it has much more significance due to the role of barber shops in the Black Community.)

And the reality is that in virtually every society with a large number of people of African and/or Asian descent, skin color and hair type make all the difference in the world. I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, Mississippi Masala: – “You can be poor and light, or rich and dark, but you can’t be poor and dark.” (And that was a description of Indian cultural attitudes which is sadly still very much accurate today.)

There are plenty of people of European origin who understand that dark-skinned people with kinky hair still get the rawest deal in America, even today. One could go a bit further and note that males in this category are most often the victims of unjustified police shootings. And there are many people of European origin who are utterly clueless about this (without being in the least bit racist). That’s not a function of whether they’ve studied American history, “Black studies,” or any other kind of history. It’s a matter of mindfulness. Some folks are just not very astute.

Where College Admissions Went Wrong

This is the second story in a three-part series looking at elite-college admissions. Read the first story here.

In 2011, close to 200 higher-education professionals from selective institutions across the country gathered at the University of Southern California to come up with a plan to reshape college admissions. “The values and behaviors this system signals as important, and its tendency to reward only a narrow band of students,” a report on the meeting concluded, is crippling the mission of education. It’s also undermining “the social, economic, and civic vitality of our nation’s future.” The gathering confirmed the growing consensus—even among those intimately involved in the most notorious aspects of admissions—that the system is in desperate need of reform. The intense competition it fuels undermines students’ well-being; pressures applicants to fine-tune their test-taking skills and inflate their resumes; and distorts the purpose of higher education.

Instead of preparing themselves for college—or more importantly, for life—students spend all of their pre-college years preparing themselves for the moment of admission. “What we want is to have students who want to come and work hard because they can leverage their experience at the university and do something after they leave,” said Wesleyan University President Michael Roth. “One of my predecessors used to say to students, ‘If these turn out to be the best four years of your life, we’ve failed you.’”

Roth didn’t participate in the USC conference, but he agrees with its tenets. “I think that that’s the missing part now—this consumer mentality [of], ‘Oh, I got in and now I get to enjoy the exclusive club,’ rather than ‘I got in, and now I get to use these resources to do something after the university.’”

The people who are out in the field recruiting applicants are rarely venerable educators who drive and shape the educational objectives of the school. In many cases, the front line of the admissions process is a cadre of relatively low-paid twentysomethings. Ultimately, the USC/Education Conservancy event did little to change the status quo at selective colleges. The admissions mania has, arguably, only gotten worse. Students today still spend months and sometimes even years of grueling work to secure a spot, spending thousands on test prep and college consultants, drafting essays and enrolling all kinds of extracurriculars, just to get into the running. And at the other end of all that work is what many critics describe as a lottery—even the most qualified students are merely gambling to get in.

The Absurdity of College Admissions


Another campaign called Turning the Tide, which is being led by many of the same players, aims to do something similar, this time focusing on the character-building potential of the admissions process. Where as the USC report focused mainly on de-emphasizing test scores and admissions selectivity and treating admission into a selective school as “beginning of an educational journey,” this one aims to fundamentally alter students’ reasons for getting into college. Based on a recent survey which found that most of the country’s teens prioritize their own happiness or achievement over caring for others, Turning the Tide is calling on selective colleges to encourage applicants to engage in “meaningful, sustained community service,” contribute to their families, and focus on the quality (versus the quantity) of extracurricular activities.

But it’s unclear whether this campaign will gain any more traction than the USC iteration, and some—including Roth—are skeptical about its approach. “I do worry about trying to create a new system that will measure qualities that will supposedly make people better people. Because insofar as it becomes a new system, it will be gamed by people who already pad their resumes with all kinds of activities that supposedly show empathy, but what they really show is a desire to get into schools where empathy is a criterion for admission,” Roth said.

There are concrete steps that can improve the system, Roth noted, such as de-emphasizing standardized-test scores. As the Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier put it in her book The Tyranny of Meritocracy, the SAT “best reflects our national obsession with the moment of college admission, rather than with the post-graduation missions of those who attend our colleges and universities.”

Lloyd Thacker, the founder and executive director of the Education Conservancy. It’s “become a formative process during which the signals sent by a host of stakeholders are shaping their attitudes, their values, and behaviors in very troubling ways. Far too many students are learning to do whatever it takes to get ahead—even if that means sacrificing individuality, health, happiness, ethical principles, and behavior.”

“In light of all that’s being expected of kids, academically and extracurricularly, how do we still make sure that they still develop these very important human skills so that they can be citizens of the world?” agreed Rod Skinner, who oversees college counseling at Milton Academy and serves as a faculty member for Harvard’s Summer Institute on College Admissions. “So it’s not an ‘either/or’ [question]—it’s an ‘and’ conversation that we need to have. That ‘and’ is not easy, and that’s why people would prefer to make it ‘either/or’—because that’s an easier thing to manage.”

The toy Sarah Ford received from Duke TIP. (Sarah Ford)

And the pressure is starting earlier and earlier. Sarah Ford, a senior at the New England elite prep school Milton Academy, said she’s been thinking about college since she was in the fifth grade, when she took a test to qualify for Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, or TIP, an initiative designed to search for and support gifted children. Ford said she still has a toy—a wooden transformer-like figure that was stamped at the center with the TIP logo— that came in TIP’s introduction package, presumably to lure youngsters into the academically rigorous program.

“The letter inside the package … offered me the opportunity to take a standardized test,” Ford said, explaining that at the time she didn’t understand the purpose of the exam but felt honored to be included. “My mom and I ultimately just treated the test as an opportunity to practice for the SAT.”

Ford signed up for her first SAT-prep class the summer before sixth grade.

By the time she moved to Massachusetts in the seventh grade to attend Milton, college was pretty much all Ford could think about. “A huge part [of going to Milton] was to get to a better school, to end up with more opportunities, ultimately to be able to have a good route to college,” she said. “I was very preoccupied by it—it was incredibly prevalent.”

But for all of Ford’s SAT preoccupations, selective colleges are moving away from using standardized-test scores as a key factor in admissions. Skepticism of the SAT (and its increasingly popular cousin, the ACT) is so widespread by this point that bashing it is almost cliché. And at the rate that colleges are making test scores optional—including Roth’s Wesleyan University—a world in which SAT or ACT performance is secondary in admissions decisions may not be too far off. (According to The New York Times, as of 2015, 850 colleges and universities were test-optional.) A growing body of research challenges the notion that test performance is a proxy for success in college. There’s broad consensus that the transcript is the single most valuable tool for predicting college success. According to research by William Hiss and Valerie Franks, who both worked in Bates College’s admissions department, the students who performed the best in college were those who had good grades in high school, including those who may have had poor SAT scores. “Many of us who have spent our careers as secondary and university faculty and administrators find compelling the argument that ‘what students do over four years in high school is more important than what they do on a Saturday morning,’” the authors wrote.

But even if they’re moving away from standardized tests, that doesn’t mean selective-college admissions are moving away from standardized expectations of what it takes to get in. It’s just that they’re adding more ingredients to their recipe for the perfect student—a recipe increasingly impossible to pull off. Some of the country’s most selective schools stress that they reject many students with perfect standardized-test scores. According to a 2013 article published in Stanford’s alumni journal, more than two-thirds—69 percent—of the college’s applicants in the previous five years with perfect SAT scores didn’t get in.

Toward a More Perfect University. “The kid who’s really extraordinary at something but doesn’t care about some other aspect of the curriculum has no chance of getting—very, very rarely will they get—into these most highly selective schools.”

The obsession with admitting well-rounded students has percolated throughout the higher-education landscape over the decades, making its way into all kinds of institutions that rightly want to prioritize more than just academic merit. But in competing with each other to enroll the crème de la crème of the country’s teens, elite schools—and, increasingly, schools like the University of Michigan and UCLA that weren’t traditionally considered “elite”—are still effectively encouraging all students to fit into a certain mold. This mold now includes prolific extracurricular involvement, leadership, and volunteer experience—all on top of high standardized-test scores and GPAs.

* * *

The arms race to identify and recruit the perfect students was in part fueled by a race to rank the best schools. Between 1970 and 1983, college enrollment increased by 47 percent. The growing demand meant a heightened interest in knowing how the country’s thousands of schools stacked up against each other. So in 1983, U.S. News & World Report launched its rankings were launched in 1983. “For generations, colleges and universities had generally relied on a mysterious brew of prestige and reputation,” wrote the journalist Max Kutner in a 2014 Boston Magazine article about the rankings. “Suddenly, legacies and tradition—qualities that had taken decades, and sometimes centuries, for schools to cultivate—were less important than cold, hard data.”  

U.S. News rankings often come up early in conversations about admissions mania. The rankings have shaped how colleges invest their resources and handle admissions because of what they take into consideration when grading institutions—things like academic reputation (peer reviews), selectivity (acceptance rate), and student caliber (average SAT score and graduation rate and high-school GPA). They gave us a standardized, numbers-driven definition of what it means to be a “good school.” And that definition was based, in part, on having the right students. Just as students with means began hiring tutors to help them prep for standardized tests, once the idea of a “good school” became standardized, schools increasingly started relying on a professional corps of consultants to help them recruit the right student body. So we entered the brave new world of the “enrollment-management consultant.”

It used to be faculty members who handled a college’s administrative functions. They were in charge of running the business operations; they were the registrars; they decided who was and wasn’t admitted. As the number of applicants grew, these roles became more and more specialized, and eventually, working in college admissions became its own profession.

Today, admissions officers’ responsibilities vary little from institution to institution. Often fresh out of college—where they may have been tour guides or admissions-office employees as students—many of them attended the institutions they now represent, according to Tom Green, who oversees consulting and strategic enrollment management at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.   

Strategic enrollment management—the work that Green does—is a fancy way of describing the task of helping a college proactively create a student body that meets its academic, demographic, and financial goals. The consultants might advise administrators to admit 50 students from the South and another 50 who want to major in computer science, for example; they might warn against enrolling too many people from the bottom socioeconomic quartile to ensure a college retains a high graduation rate and low percentages of students who default on their loans. “Take a college that says, ‘I wish we had more students who are better quality’—a very common request, by the way, for colleges and universities,” Green said. “The consultant might say, ‘The process you’re using is yielding the same things you got 20 years ago. So let’s think about how the process can be refreshed or really pulled apart completely and put together differently,’” Green said.

“It’s a way of trying to proactively look at the institution’s mission, its vision for the future, the environment in which it operates, and trying to align all of those factors so that the institution isn’t just reacting to changes in demographics or funding,” Green continued. It “really tries to control the enrollment destiny and … become the most efficient and most effective organization it can with the entire point of living out its mission and helping its students be successful.”

Green’s association, commonly referred to as AACRAO, has been around for more than a century, hosting conferences and publishing materials to acquaint members with best practices and help them with professional development. Green cited the upcoming Supreme Court decision on affirmative action as an example of issues under discussion. Another topic of focus is social media: “How do we use things like Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook … How do each of these things fit together and integrate into a more comprehensive and modern communications strategy so that we’re able to tell our story to prospective students? And from that, hopefully the right students will be attracted to the institution for the right reasons.”

Critics like Lloyd Thacker charge enrollment-management consultants with homogenizing and inflating student expectations, and for similar reasons. Jonathan Cole and other educators worry that people who aren’t immersed in the day-to-day academic experience at a school are the ones tasked with designing that school’s student body. Admissions officers and enrollment-management consultants, according to Cole, see their institutions through a business lens rather than an educational one. In a National Association for College Admission Counseling survey that asked colleges to rate the importance of various skills for the position of chief enrollment officer, previous admission experience, statistics/data analysis, and marketing/public relations were the top three categories. Aside from having an advanced degree, which only half of respondents rated as “very important,” experience in academia appears nowhere on the list. “You would never find the faculty in any decent university that would allow 24-year-olds to determine who were going to be their colleagues on the faculty; nor would they allow these 24-year-olds to determine who are going to be their graduate students or their postdoctorate fellows,” said Cole, noting that admissions officers have often declined to go forward with his recommendations. “So why do we do it in undergraduate education?”

It’s unclear how siloed the admissions and academic functions actually are in higher education, and chances are it varies from institution to institution. The NACAC report found that admissions officers seek “recruitment assistance from faculty on a regular basis,” but as Cole implied, the extent to which the officers act on that advice differs. And ultimately, the NACAC report makes it clear that a tension between the academic and admissions worlds exists. The results of that assistance were, according to the report, “decidedly mixed.” “Perhaps the greatest challenge of working with faculty, according to some, is creating understanding and appreciation of the process and its importance to everyone on campus. ‘Faculty thinks it’s our job to “bring them in,”’ said an unnamed counselor in the report. ‘They don’t know how important recruitment is. They don’t have our back.’”

People on the admissions side of things are in charge of building a class—of strategically meeting an institution’s long-term goals through the art of recruiting and enrolling students. If there are only two seats for stellar jazz musicians with strong STEM skills and five such students apply, the question of which of them will make it in is largely up to chance. Cole recalls asking some of his students whether they’d support an admissions system in which a list of potential candidates for the 1,400 or so freshmen seats at Columbia were narrowed down to the best 5,000 applicants, which would then be admitted by lottery. “There’s not a single student who would go for the lottery system. They want to believe that in the sight of God there is a rank order from 1 to 36,000 and they’re among the elect,” Cole said. “They don’t recognize that there are other people who have been rejected for a whole series of reasons who really have as much potential in a variety of ways as they do.”

Admission, Cole said, often depends on “which person in the admissions committee reads your application; what their biases are, their presuppositions; whether they’ve had a bad egg-salad sandwich that day or read too many applications. These are all things that enter our decision-making process as human beings.”

“It is [a lottery],” Cole said, “but no one is willing to admit it.”

Why Didn’t You Take a Black Studies Course in College?

During my conversation last week with Bria Godley, a black undergraduate at Yale, she theorized that “the disconnect between how Yale presents itself and the reality of racial strife at Yale is partly due to students’ tendency to academically self-segregate.” She explained:

…black students are overrepresented in Af-Am Studies classes. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, I cannot help but roll my eyes when white students defend themselves by saying that they simply “don’t understand” what it is like to be a minority, as if the minority experience is not well documented in current events and in literature. The people of color at Yale can articulate injustices, no matter how nuanced, not only because of their lived experience but also because of the vocabulary and theoretical framework that these classes and the articles they read have given them. But, it seems as if white students tend to shy away from the topic of race because they not only lack the experience, but the educational and theoretical foundation to address it.

Although Yale projects this image of a diverse community in which people are smart enough to avoid offending others with their ignorance, due to this self-segregation, many students of color at Yale feel isolated and disrespected by the majority population.

One needn’t hold any particular view in the long-running debate over the optimal role of black studies on campus to see how students at the same institution, but enmeshed in different texts, frameworks, and academic approaches, might feel isolated from one another or talk past one another in ways that cause some to feel disrespected.

And I wondered, how do Yalies decide whether or not to take a black studies course, anyway? Yale graduate Christopher Finney emailed one answer:

I have a master’s from Yale, and based on my experience there, this seems like an easy question. There are many fascinating courses available at any university, more so at a place like Yale. And there is no lack of important, timely, fundamental issues to learn about. So the answer is easy: people have limited time, they have majors to pursue, they have their own areas of interest, and it’s unreasonable to expect people to be fully conversant in the “theoretical frameworks” of everything.

African American studies is important, and I don’t mean to minimize it (within my own field––conservation––environmental justice is a framework I take into consideration regularly because I took a class at Yale, which points toward Bria Godley’s idea). But if she thinks every undergrad should have to take a class in African American studies, or read certain books or articles, then that implies priorities, which implies importance. But is African American studies more important than understanding the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy, or the likely effects of climate change, or the impacts of oil prices on U.S. policy in the Middle East, or the feminist critique of modern capitalism?

Those are important too, and it’s awfully hard to really understand even one of them, let alone all of them. No one is fully versed in everything, and they shouldn’t have to be to have a respectful dialogue. If people like Godley (who seems to be preparing to dedicate her life’s work to this field) only see room for meaningful discussion of these issues with people who took the right classes at Yale, well, thing have a long way to trickle down before we see a better police force in Ferguson.

Now, that actually goes beyond the view that Godley expressed; she made a more narrowly drawn point about why she believes there is a disconnect between how Yale presents itself and how it is. Taking her out of it, I thank the reader for articulating a view that some other Yalies no doubt share. One aspect of his thinking tracks my own: it’s really important for people who have different ur-theories of race in America to find discrete, constructive ways to converse and work together. Beyond a tiny elite, most people will never take the same college coursework.

That insight isn’t actually inconsistent with Godley’s argument: that black students at Yale would feel less isolated if more non-black students took black studies coursework. And I remain curious about why other college students and college graduates, at Yale or beyond, did or didn’t enroll in ethnic studies classes themselves. I suspect that, lingering in the answers, there are insights as to whether or not broader participation would be salutary and, if so, how it might be achieved.

Email me if you’re up for explaining your decision and whether you think it was the right one.

Schooled into Slavery

In Senegal, thousands of children are exploited by their teachers in the name of Koranic education. Called talibes, the Arabic word for students, some 50,000 boys are forced into child labor, according to Human Rights Watch. Photographer Sebastian Gil Miranda spent two months last year traveling around the country to document the conditions of these youths. “Families do not have money to pay for the religious education of their children,” Miranda said, “so for them it is logical that the child himself be the one to finance their own education.” Housed in deplorable conditions in daaras, or schools, teachers demand talibes deliver daily begging quotas or be beaten, starved, or left out in the street.

Being a Gay Teacher at a Christian College

What your readers convey regarding the silence and confusion around LGBT issues is absolutely accurate. The worst part is that as a shy 18 year old desperate to fit in with the school culture, I was traveling alone. I did not know how far I could go before putting my education and livelihood in jeopardy. Could I attend pride or wear a rainbow bracelet? Could I write about and talk about my experiences in class, in front of my professors? Could I come out to my RA? My friends? Even more than disciplinary action, I feared social rejection.

It was painful enough losing friends when I came out. More painful than the once friendly acquaintances who avoided eye contact when I walked by, were the friends who provided their hesitant “non-judgment” but then spoke in hushed tones whenever I brought up a romantic interest or spoke of my struggles coming out to my family. I was the subject of prayer meetings I wasn’t even aware of, and of conversations between roommates who weren’t comfortable living with me anymore.

It was painful enough being turned away from counseling services when I said that I was in a same-sex relationship and didn’t view it it as a sin, or sitting through mandatory chapel services of “ex-gays” who said I needed to pray about my sexuality (as if I hadn’t spent night after night crying myself to sleep and begging for God to change me).

But the most painful thing, what I heard from fellow students at a school whose motto is “we believe you belong here,” and what people say over and over in the comments section of articles like these, is “why go to a college that doesn’t accept you?”

As someone who grew up in a Baptist church, who never missed youth group, who considered faith the most important part of her life, and wanted to attend a school that shared those values, it hurts to hear “why did you even come here?” As a bright student who wanted to be a music teacher and received a life changing scholarship to a school with a great music program, it hurts to hear “why did you even come here?”

But even more, as a kid who didn’t yet fully understand or reconcile my sexuality and just wanted to figure out what God wanted for me, who wanted to make my parents happy, it hurts that people can’t understand why a gay kid would end up at a school like Olivet.

Students don’t choose where to go to college based on their sexual orientation. A number of factors influence this choice including location of the school, programs the school offers, great sports team, cost of tuition, opinions of ones family who are often funding the education, extracurricular activities, and so forth. For some including myself, a faith-based education is the only one their parents will financially support. To say “why would you even come here?” is simply petty and unfair, and it refuses to confront the real issues  that LGBT students face at Christian colleges.

The Madness of College Basketball Coaches’ Salaries

As you pick your bracket for March Madness, stop for a moment and ponder what some might describe as the madness of the coaches’ salaries. According to U.S. News & World Report, the highest-paid 25 college basketball coaches earn between roughly $2 million and $6 million per year. Those figures don’t include generous perks, such as private jets and housing allowances, or severance packages. There are millions more in bonuses for coaches who take their teams to the championships. And coaches can supplement that income with private endorsement deals, speaking fees, and summer camps.

While million-dollar-plus salaries are commonplace in professional sports, they are highly unusual in the world of higher education, where adjunct faculty and tenured full professors earn between $20,000 to $126,000. The average college president brings in $475,403. In fact, coaches are the highest-paid public employees in several states, including Kentucky and Kansas.

The high earning power of college coaches has for years been under scrutiny; John Oliver even devoted an entire segment last March to skewering college basketball for failing to pay its athletes while handing their coaches millions. A recent survey found that most Americans think that college coaches are overpaid. But public opinion and commentary by late-night talk-show hosts have done little to squelch those big numbers, which continue to rise over the years. One study found that the median compensation for men’s head basketball coaches at NCAA’s Division I-A schools went up by 102 percent between 2005 and 2011.

Turns out those arguably oversized paychecks can be explained by the amateur status of student-athletes, intercollegiate competition, and pressure from alumni and fans. Yet amid growing concern about stagnant tenured-faculty wages, the rise in part-time teaching staff, and mounting burden of student loans, it’s hard to make sense of these super-sized college-sports programs and their highly paid coaches. There isn’t strong evidence that a winning sports team benefits the educational mission of a college, helping it enroll higher-quality students or secure more funding for its academic programming.

* * *

According to Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who specializes in the college-sports business, these salaries are so high because, unlike the NBA, which gives half of its revenues to players, colleges don’t pay their athletes. This frees up a huge chunk of the $11 billion college basketball industry for the coaches.

The amateur status of college athletes helps to drive up the salaries because “star coaches” are used to attract the best players. Unlike professional leagues, college teams can’t lure the top players with the promise of a big paycheck. Instead, players typically choose their schools based on lavish stadiums and other amenities, as well as access to coaches who have a proven track record of getting graduates into professional leagues.

Then there’s the competition among colleges for these “star coaches,” which has also driven up their salaries. “It’s an artificial marketplace,” Zimbalist said. “There’s not any stockholder who want control costs. Instead, you have an athletic director who has one objective, which is to win. There are only stakeholders who want victory, not stockholders who want profit.”

College presidents have long defended the salaries of the coaches saying that alumni and the general public pressure the school to make these hires. Lee T. Todd Jr., a former president of the University of Kentucky, said in an interview with The New York Times in 2009, “The money that we use to pay those salaries come through media contracts, primarily football and basketball and TV-related income and other media. Sports is an American marketplace.” He felt that the university received generous donations to their academic programs as a result of Kentucky’s successful basketball team.

The former chancellor of the University of Maryland and president of Ohio State, William Kirwan, confirmed that college presidents feel this pressure to maintain high-level sports teams and have little control over the situation, almost always approving salaries once they’re negotiated by the athletic departments. Now the chair of the Knight Commission, an advocacy group that aims to reform college sports, Kirwan noted that colleges want to have the reputation of being committed to athletics. The public, he said, has an “insatiable appetite for sports.”

And when presidents try to rein in spending, according to Kirwan, they’re often stymied by the public. He pointed to a former University of Alabama president who tried to cut the university’s football team. “[His efforts] lasted all of two months,” Kirwan said. “Fans and the state legislature said that we have to have football. Presidents are not in control.”

While it might make sense for all colleges to work together to bring down these salaries, no one university wants to act alone out of fear that the competition would lead to the decimation of their athletic programs. If they collude or create a salary cap for coaching, they run the risk of violating federal antitrust laws. Meanwhile, the NCAA, which is a membership organization that includes 350 Division 1 colleges and governs March Madness, “cannot and does not control coaches’ salaries,” according to Meghan Durham, a spokeswoman for the NCAA. (I reached out to nearly a dozen athletic departments’ officials and coaches, all of whom either didn’t respond or declined to comment because they were busy with March Madness.)

Some say that colleges can afford these high salaries because their teams bring in millions from alumni boosters, television rights, and ticket sales. However, athletic departments often spend more than they bring in; the money generated by basketball tournaments rarely leaves the locker room. The philosophy department doesn’t reap the benefit of the basketball team’s profits from television networks or licensing deals with T-shirt companies.

The Shame of College Sports


Athletic departments typically channel their profits towards less-profitable sports like tennis and golf, as well as tuition and expenses for the athletes. Other money goes toward the top coaches, maintenance of the facilities, and the salaries for assistant coaches and athletic directors. Incidentally, those other athletic employees have also seen a big jump in salaries. According to The Washington Post, “One of the fastest-increasing athletic costs at many of America’s largest public universities … is the amount of money flowing into the paychecks of the people running those athletic departments.”

With those sizable expenses, only a handful of sports programs in the country are profitable, according to Zimbalist and Kirwan, often relying on university subsidies funded by student tuition and fees, endowments, and state contributions. “It’s outrageous that institutions are diverting funds from academics into intercollegiate athletics,” Kirwan said, stressing that spending for basketball and other sports has risen 10 times faster than other academic spending at universities. “Students are supporting these programs with high athletic fees that can be as much as $1,000 per student,” he said. Intercollegiate sports are “a highly commercial enterprise embedded in not-for-profit institutions.”

Ultimately, it may take federal action to rein in spending, perhaps by exempting colleges from anti-trust legislation and allowing them to exchange salary information. Since Pell Grant money covers recipients’ student fees, including those for athletics, the federal government should be involved, Kirwan argued.

“I’m pointing the finger at myself, too,” Kirwan said, citing his 52 years in higher education, including as a chancellor and president. “I will always been disappointed that we weren’t able to keep intercollegiate sports under control. Sports have a place in higher education. But right now, it’s become the tail that wags the dog.”

The Competitive World of Blind Sports

When the gun goes off, a slight young girl with a shock of white hair bursts off the starting line. Her legs pump harder as she picks up speed, eventually outpacing her competitors as she sprints furiously towards the finish line. There’s just one problem: She can’t see it.

“I didn’t even know when I was done,” recalls Pam McGonigle. “I just ran.” McGonigle, now in her 40s, has albinism, a rare genetic condition where the body doesn’t produce normal pigment, and has been legally blind since birth (vision problems are a common side effect of albinism). But her lack of vision didn’t stop her from competing against her sighted peers as a cross-country runner in middle school. And it didn’t stop her from being recruited to her high-school track team after the coach recognized her raw ability.

As a high-school student, McGonigle ran unassisted, and often had to slow her pace so she could run next to her teammates; otherwise, she risked running into trees. It wasn’t until she was training for the 1992 Paralympics that she got a guide runner, a sighted person who leads a blind runner along the course.

A generation of visually impaired athletes like McGonigle have proven their ability to compete in a variety of sports—from running to bowling to soccer—but in many ways, the challenges she faced as a child still loom as large as ever. Being blind too often comes with an assumption of being incapable, and never being given a chance to prove otherwise. Rather than integrate visually impaired children with their sighted peers for sports, schools often pull them out of physical education to sit in the library and work.

“A lot of times, the teachers are afraid of liability and the kids are excluded,” says Lauren Lieberman, a professor of physical education at the State University of New York, Brockport, who teaches future P.E. instructors how to adapt sports for kids with disabilities. “But once they do [that with] sports, they can generalize that to other things.”

Lieberman, who runs a sports camp for visually impaired kids called Camp Abilities, says that while athletic success can help campers grow their self-confidence, the social aspect might be just as important: “Most of the kids don’t have any friends who are visually impaired at their school.”

“The most they get out of it is socialization,” agrees Sandy White, the sports administrator of Pennsylvania’s Blind Sports Organization, which organizes games for visually impaired kids and adults. White, who’s been involved in blind sports for more 40 years, recalls one year when the organization’s weekend sports camp was struggling to get participants. He sent out an email to participants and their families asking that everyone bring a friend to camp—sighted, blind, it didn’t matter. “I got a bunch of emails back from parents,” he says, “and they all said the same thing: ‘My child doesn’t have any friends.’”

Visually impaired children today are often “mainstreamed,” meaning that they attend regular public schools and receive the accommodations they need in order to keep up. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was signed into law in 1990, mandates that students are educated in the “least restricted environment,” meaning that if a visually impaired student can get along in a regular school setting, he or she is ineligible to receive funding to attend a special school for the blind.

Practically speaking, it also means that a visually impaired child may be the only one at their school—but athletes say that integration is valuable in helping young people to physically and socially adapt to a sighted world. “At the end of the day, you don’t live in the blind world,” says Jen Armbruster, a veteran Paralympian. “You live in the sighted world.”

James Mastro, who has medaled in four sports at the Paralympics, agrees. “I’m not different, I’m just blind,” he says. “I figured out a long time ago that I wasn’t going to have anyone tell me I couldn’t do something.”

It’s a common theme among visually impaired competitive athletes: They’re determined to prove that very little is beyond their reach.

“Besides driving a car, there’s nothing I can’t do,” says Scott Hogwood, a champion blind athlete in multiple sports. He lost his vision in his 30s due to a progressive disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which causes the retina to slowly degenerate. Still, he can bowl a 268—better than most sighted people. He’s also played in the World Series of beep baseball, a surprisingly violent sport in which players hit a ball thrown by a sighted person, then sprint towards a base that looks more like a punching bag propped upright. The base beeps to let the runner know where it is, and instead of sliding smoothly, the players launch themselves head-on into it.

Many sports for the visually impaired involve similar full-body contact. In a game called Goalball, for example, one player hurls what looks like a kickball by spinning around and launching it at the opposing team’s broad goal, which spans the width of the volleyball-sized court. The three defending players crouch on all fours, ready to fling themselves in front of the oncoming ball, which emits a cheerful jangling sound as it sails through the air. At the Paralympic level, the ball travels more than 40 miles per hour.

“It’s hard to recruit people because you have to throw yourself around and get hurt,” says Armbruster. She had played basketball for years with severe visual impairment through the support of her sighted teammates, who would help her line up for free throws by kicking her feet into place. Once it became too difficult to play basketball, she turned turned to goalball.

Recruitment for goalball and other blind sports often depends on unofficial tactics like word of mouth —but that strategy has made it difficult for many blind sports teams to survive. About 7.3 million people in the United States have some kind of visual impairment, 2.9 million of whom are over the age of 65. That means a blind person may not know anyone else who has a visual impairment, much less one who wants to get banged up a regular basis.

“Getting people is always a challenge,” says Rob Weissman, who runs a beep-baseball team called the Boston Renegades. He attributes his own teams’ recruiting success to luck—a few team members work in the blind community, which makes it much easier to find new people. But getting players to stick around, he says, is more about helping them feel empowered as athletes. “The common misperception that people have about anyone with a disability is that they need to be coddled,” he says. “That’s something that a lot of our players like, that we don’t treat them any differently.”

That sense of community can be critical, because mainstreaming makes it difficult to get people involved at a young age. “The biggest barrier is finding those kids,” says Armbruster. “It’s great that they’re mainstream, but it’s hard to find them.” And without sports teams outside of school, blind children often don’t get those normal childhood experiences.

“They didn’t grow up with the Little League mentality,” says White, and since many of them are too shy to get involved on their own, they stay at the fringe. “Most of the time they say they’re ignored by the sighted kids.” That leaves a lot up to the parents, who can be so protective of their visually impaired children that they have to be persuaded to let them play sports.

It was precisely that problem that first inspired White to get involved with blind sports. As a swim coach in the 1970s, he says, he was approached by a young blind girl who wanted to take swim lessons. He worked with her for years, helping to persuade her mother of the girl’s abilities, and eventually followed her to the U.S. Nationals in swimming as her coach.

White, like the Paralympic athletes themselves, has watched awareness of blind sports rise over the years. A cumulative 3.4 billion people watched the London 2012 Paralympic games, up by nearly a billion from the Beijing 2008 games. Today’s visually impaired kids are growing up with athletic examples like Armbruster and Mastro. They’re afforded opportunities not given to their parents’ generation. Gradually, the world of sports is opening itself up to them.

“Society as a whole has a low expectation for people with visual impairments,” Lieberman says. “Role models are slowly changing that impression.”

How to Graduate More Black Students

Updated on March 23, 2016

Many more black students are graduating from college than a decade ago. According to a new report from The Education Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on improving outcomes for low-income students of color, completion rates for African Americans increased at nearly 70 percent of the four-year public schools that raised their overall graduations rates between 2003 and 2013. But at the same time, a third of the colleges the group studied that had rising overall graduation rates actually had stagnant or declining graduation rates for black students.

More than 50 schools have also reduced graduation gaps between black and white students, including Texas Tech University and Ohio State University. The report outlines a series of efforts that, if scaled effectively, might help more colleges boost graduation rates for black students, which, at about 47 percent in 2013 at public universities, remain significantly lower than the 65 percent graduation rate for white students. “These institutions illustrate that demographics aren’t destiny and that what colleges do with and for their students plays a pivotal role in student success,” write the authors.

At Ohio State, where the black graduation rate has climbed from about 42 percent in 2003 to around 73 percent in 2013, the gap between white and black students has shrunk by more than 8 points. In other words, white and black students are graduating at higher rates than they used to, but blacks have made gains at a faster pace. As the report outlines, the school connects with low-income, first-generation potential students, most of them black, when they are in middle school through the Young Scholars Program, which points them toward the classes and study habits they will need to succeed in college. If they enroll at Ohio State, they get an annual scholarship, attend a summer bridge program and a study-skills course to ease the transition to school, and meet with coaches and mentors regularly. There are off-campus weekend retreats, conversations about race on campus, and a research center that brings black students from around the country to campus to share best practices and challenges.

Texas Tech created a program called Mentor Tech, which focuses on connecting students of color with faculty and local churches and community groups. “The mentors we match them with commit to assisting them with navigating the system, sharing the unwritten rules of culture, connecting them with resources, being that listening ear, being that caring arm, and sometimes being that voice of correction to help them bounce back from failure,” Cory Powell, the director of the program, told Education Trust. The graduation rate for black students on campus is 19 points higher at 56 percent than it was 10 years ago.

Posse Foundation, that operate nationally, they are difficult to scale in part because they are time-intensive and expensive. They often require human-to-human contact. As John Gomperts, the CEO and president of America’s Promise Alliance, told me last year when his organization released a report suggesting that connecting kids with adults who care can increase the likelihood they graduate, at-risk young people suffer from “a kind of relationship poverty.” They lack the “human guardrails” that exist for other kids. Building those up takes time and effort.

Many schools, Education Trust suggests, have a long way to go when it comes to helping black students graduate from college. Black students are often more challenged by serious disadvantages from their earliest years, and colleges are being asked to close gaps that they did not directly create. Black students are more likely than white students to attend highly segregated schools where poverty is the norm, for instance, and are less likely to have access to advanced placement courses. As Anthony Carnevale, the head of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Atlantic at a recent roundtable, “We still have separate but unequal education among the races.” But that doesn’t change the fact that 73 of the colleges that had rising graduation rates in general had stagnant or declining graduation rates for black students specifically. Nearly 30 of the schools saw declining graduation rates for black students.

And while six-year graduation rates at four-year public schools have climbed more than five percent for white students between 2003 and 2013, they’ve risen just two percent for black students, meaning the gap is still widening. “We have serious concerns that at too many institutions, equitable student success is an afterthought instead of a top-of-mind priority,” Andrew Nichols, the co-author of the report, said in a statement. At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, for example, the black-white graduation gap is greater than 20 points. In 2003, the report notes, the graduation rate was actually higher for black students, at 46 percent, than for white students, at 38 percent. In 2013, the graduation rate for black students slipped to 31 percent, while it rose to 54 percent for white students. The university suggested in a statement to The Atlantic that it is “providing a greater level of access to black students.” The school said it has taken a series of steps to improve outcomes in recent years, including redesigning certain courses, strengthening mentoring programs, and implementing a summer bridge program.

Nichols said that while it is true some schools invest in expensive and time-intensive interventions to increase graduation rates, there are less costly options that can have an impact. School presidents have to make equity a priority, he said. Schools can dive into the data on courses with high dropout rates, for instance, and either identify better instructors or add supplemental instruction for students who need it. “There are a lot of innovative ways that schools can really, really move the needle on student success,” he said, “so we’re really not buying the excuses.”