It’s been quite a week.
First, as if we needed to further hype Super Bowl XLIX between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots, the sports world was all abuzz over “Deflate-gate.” Next, Albany was in a state of shock with word that the long-time Speaker of the Assembly – one of the most powerful men in the state – was arrested on federal corruption charges. And finally, the threat of an epic snowstorm with forecasts of up to three feet of snow shut the city down.
Given these major storylines it would be understandable, even in a city as media-conscious as New York, to overlook another story that was generating quite a bit of attention and energy from the media, as well as from one of the city’s most well-known pubic institutions.
Two weeks ago, The Atlantic Monthly published a story on the steady decline of black and Latino freshmen entering City University of New York’s (CUNY) top tier colleges. The article’s original headline read: “When high achievers have no place to go: Star students from immigrant and minority families often find themselves locked out of the City University of New York — a system originally designed just for them.”
CUNY’s reaction to the article made it seem as if the story was a complete mess of fiction and faulty journalism. But the truth is not nearly that simple.
The Facts Don’t Lie
Let’s review what the article was about: a major drop in enrollment of black and Latino freshmen in selective senior colleges, largely due to a heavy reliance on SAT scores, an assessment that is increasingly out of favor at top colleges around the country
A 2012 report by my organization documented this trend which has continued to worsen. The problem with The Atlantic article was its failure to report that one of the students profiled in the story did indeed get into several CUNY senior colleges.
When this came to light, The Atlantic made edits and corrections to the original story and omitted the information on the student. But the damage was done. CUNY pounced on the error as a way to discredit the entire story, including making the preposterous suggestion that my organization funded it. Despite CUNY’s public relations offensive the story’s basic premise backed by data – namely that blacks and Latinos are a small and shrinking presence at CUNY’s most selective schools – was never in dispute. That’s because the facts don’t lie.
CUNY Should Present Data and Evidence on Admission Process
In its responses to the article, CUNY claims that it looks at more than just SAT scores in its admissions policies. But regardless of the specifics of the admissions process, average SAT scores have risen at the selective schools, which all increased their minimum SAT requirements in recent years (although those requirements have even more recently disappeared from most of the colleges’ Websites).
There is a simple way for CUNY to address the concerns of this widespread group of stakeholders, such as those quoted in The Atlantic article. CUNY should present data and evidence for how its admissions policies consider a range of factors of student achievement, especially for those applicants who come from under-resourced families and high schools, from all corners of New York City.
CUNY represents New York City, and is the natural pathway for the city’s public high school students, 70 percent of whom are Black and Latino. As such, the student population of its colleges, even the top ones, should better reflect the diversity of the city and the public high schools.
The point in all of this is not about proving that one side is right or wrong. Our goal in this work, which we hope one day to share with CUNY, is that top students should get an opportunity to attend our best public colleges, even when they did not enjoy the same opportunities in preparation for doing so. So we want to be as rigorous as possible in making sure our best public institutions are sensitive to the inequalities that surround us, and give all students a truly fair shake.
Rather than sniping about where one student may have been admitted, we think that CUNY should sit down with a range of stakeholders to address the undeniable evidence that major changes at its top colleges are preventing qualified students from attending its best schools. The fact remains that Harvard College admits a considerably higher percentage of black freshmen than Baruch College (11.2 percent vs. 8.5 percent), despite the latter being a public institution, drawing largely from public high school students, in a highly diverse catchment area. Until we deal with facts like these, we are missing the forest for the trees.