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Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2000 / 3 Adar I, 5760

Walter Williams

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Black students as
meal tickets --
THERE'S A STORY about a visitor to an Indian reservation who sees a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer uncontrollably crying. He asks, "Why are you crying?" The officer sobs, "My Indian died." The officer didn't give a hoot about the Indian, he was worried about his budget that was determined by the number of "his" Indians. How much truth is in that story is one thing, but it surely has application to the plight of many black college students.

Here's a question: What serves the interests of black college students the most, a college admitting as many as possible or a college having as many as possible graduate? The answer depends on where you sit, and I'll say why after a few statistics.

Nationally, only 26 percent of black students graduate six years after entering college. That's about half the graduation rate of white students. At some colleges, no more than 20 percent of black students admitted graduate. Many who do graduate do so with grade point averages that are lower than their white or Asian counterparts. These statistics on academic failure are not new. They've existed since colleges began racial double-standards in admission.

Black students who fail to graduate are not beneficiaries of this nearly three- decades old failure story, but there are beneficiaries. College presidents benefit from a policy of admitting black students with little or no hope of graduation. When the government affirmative-action lady visits, she's only counting warm bodies; whether blacks graduate or have been steered into useless "mickey mouse" courses is irrelevant. The college president wins kudos for achieving and celebrating "diversity," not to mention keeping government higher-education handouts.

There's another group of beneficiaries. They're black staff and faculty who are hired and create a campus turf based on the presence of black students. It's like that Bureau of Indian Affairs officer -- the greater the number of black students, the greater the number of black professionals hired and greater the budget for black programs. The number of black students enrolled is the key, not the number who graduate. In fact, there's an element of perversity. The fewer who graduate justifies calls for greater budgets for academic support and student retention programs.

Students are not qualified or unqualified in any absolute sense. The nation's more than 3,000 colleges means there's a college for most anybody. A large part of the failure to graduate problem is academic mismatch: the wrong student being in the wrong college.

If black college professionals had true concern for the well-being of black students, they'd do something similar to what I did some 20 years ago when I was on Temple University's faculty. A black Ph.D. student earned top-of-the class grades in just about every assignment and test in my class. I summoned him to my office and told him that he should transfer to one of the top 20 economics departments. Some of my colleagues didn't like my advice, which resulted in the loss of a black student, but so what? This student now has a Ph.D. from one of the top 20 economics departments and is a respected professor of economics.

In the case of black students, whose record of academic achievement is below that of the college, black college professionals ought to insist that admissions offices not to admit them. However, preventing academic mismatch assumes that the well-being of black students is the goal. Even if black professionals were to take this initiative, college presidents might undermine it because, like that Bureau of Indian Affairs agent, their budgets often depend on the number of students enrolled, black, white, Asian or whatever.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate