How the “Yes on Proposition 107” Side Gets it Wrong on Higher Education

Why the anti-affirmative action folks get it really, really wrong.

Several months ago, I wrote a series of posts on Arizona’s latest ballot proposition — Prop 107 — which is part of the American Civil Rights Initiative’s latest effort to eliminate affirmative action in this state. One of my pieces, Proposition 107: Arizona’s Students Under Attack!, has been widely shared and remains one of the only blog posts on the Internet documenting why and how Prop 107 will hurt Arizona’s future. In brief, I draw upon the precedents set in California, which eliminated affirmative action in the mid-nineties, to demonstrate how higher education in Arizona will suffer with Prop 107’s passage.

Last week, the Yes on 107 side posted a response to my post on their website. In the interest of public information, I approved their comment publicizing their response on this site, but didn’t read it until just now.

I am sorry to say this, but the Yes on 107 argument is filled with the same kind of faulty logic that has come to characterize their side of the debate.

The Yes on 107 side would have you believe that with affirmative action policies — programs that promote recruitment and retention of underrepresented or underserved  women and minorities — in place, women and minorities are enrolling in college — but are simply not equipped to handle the rigours of a university campus. Women and minorities aren’t good enough to be in the best schools, argue the Yes on 107 crew, and consequently they are enrolling in and graduating from second-tier universities.

Instead of attending the top couple of public universities in those states, more women and minorities are attending less competitive colleges, where their chances of graduating are much better. Instead of shunting them into universities they are not academically prepared for, leading them to embarrassing failure, they are able to obtain a university education in a school where they have a realistic chance of graduating. 

Yes on 107 would have us believe that women inherently and academically under-perform compared to men, and therefore it is unkind or “embarassing” to “shunt” female students into competitive universities where they are doomed to fail out. Yet, the facts simply do not support this bizarre — and offensive — assertion.

Nationally, women are academically out-pacing men in virtually all measures. Girls have a lower high school drop-out rate (75% vs. 62%), and thus a higher high school graduation rate, compared to boys. On average, female students out-number male students on most college campuses by 57% to 43%. Male students have lower-than-average GPAs and college matriculation rate compared to female students, prompting what some policy analysts have termed a “Male Gender Gap” in higher education. One study of enrolled students at Florida and Texas universities concluded:

We find that males take fewer credits and earn lower grades than females in their first semester of enrollment. Male students are also less likely to persist and graduate from college and earn fewer cumulative credits and lower cumulative grades. The male/female differentials are not generally driven by differences in demographics, the quality of high schools and neighborhoods, high school test scores, or the selectivity of the university attended by male and female college enrollees. In fact, many of these factors tend to favor male enrollees. Instead, male enrollees have lower high school grades upon college entry, and this single factor (controlling for test scores and other factors) explains approximately three-quarters of the gender differential in credits earned and GPA in the freshman year.

This trend is mirrored in Arizona (according to a study by Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center, AMEPAC), where female students graduate from high school at rates higher than male students (74.5% vs. 67.3% for the Class of 2001). More women demonstrate sufficient aptitude to meet the acceptance criteria for Arizona’s public schools (43.6% vs. 38.2%). Women receive 55.2% of college degrees compared to men. And, women out-number men in Arizona’s top universities (shown here in graphical form, because everyone loves graphs!):

Women out-number men on Arizona's college campuses.

Arizona’s state universities are public, but I hardly agree with Yes on 107’s disparaging remark that women only out-number men on college campuses that are “less competitive”, which would seem to refer to our state’s schools. Incidentally, I should point out that the academic programs in Arizona are highly competitive. At the University of Arizona (where I currently study), we have one of the best undergraduate physiology programs in the country. Our Optical Sciences graduate program is ranked #1 and is a destination program for engineers.

Further refuting Yes on 107’s claim about women, and how “realistic” it is for them to graduate from college, women are equally represented compared to men in top private schools such as Harvard or Princeton, where they seem to be doing a perfectly fine job of graduating: Harvard boasts a 97% graduation rate.

All this isn’t to say that women are smarter than men, but it is to refute the claim by Yes on 107 that women are somehow stupider than men, and therefore we are doing them a disservice by enrolling them in college. This is to demonstrate that affirmative action policies, that have helped support, recruit and retain female college students, are working: female student have excelled in higher education as a result, in just a short fifty years since the first female students were accepted into prestigious colleges like Princeton.

(Incidentally, these same statistics also refute Yes on 107’s bizarre claim that “[race] preferences favor minorities over women”. Not only are women of all races demonstrably succeeding academically under affirmative action, but Yes on 107’s argument actually seems to suggest that there is no such thing as a minority woman.)

Now, of course, the successes seen for women are simply not evident for racial minorities. In the same study that I cite above from AMEPAC, Black and Latino students were found to have lower high school graduation rates compared to White students. But the reasons for this are not because Black and Latino students are simply incapable of going to college but are thrust into that environment anyways, as Yes on 107 would suggest, causing them to suffer an “embarassing failure”. Instead, it may be because affirmative action policies haven’t done enough to recruit and retain Black and Latino students in high school and college.

As evidence, let’s turn to George Mason University, a public university in the Northern Virginia area. According to its Wikipedia page, GMU is the largest university in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and is recognized for its strong undergraduate programs in economics, creative writing and computer science, as well as its law program. The U.S. World and News Report ranked GMU #1 in “Up-and-Coming National Universities” in 2008.

GMU also is one of a handful of schools nation-wide that have an equal graduation rate for minority and non-minority students. Administrators of these schools attribute this to the broad recruitment and retention programs — affirmative action — they have implemented to support minority students.

The authors wrote that the key to eliminating achievement gaps may rest with “what colleges do with and for the students they admit.”

Colleges with high minority graduation rates tend to aggressively recruit a “critical mass” of black and Hispanic students, support them with pre-collegiate preparatory programs and then cultivate a culture of academic success for the entire student body. When a college president sets minority completion “as an important goal and as a priority, that really filters down through the university,” Lynch said.

What GMU has done is two-fold: 1) they have increased their recruitment of minority students, and thereby enhanced their pool of highly-qualified minority students, and 2) they have implemented a number of retention programs, including scholarships and tutoring programs, that help all students, regardless of race or gender, succeed. There’s no way to get around it: these are affirmative action programs.

And, at GMU, affirmative action programs are working. Not only is GMU one of the most diverse college campuses in the country, but they are ranked exceptionally high, academically. Yes on 107 would have you believe that a school cannot be competitive while accepting women and minority students, but the facts simply do not bear that assertion out.

In summary, the argument that Yes on 107 presents is both non-factual and offensive: they argue that women and minorites are currently unprepared, and therefore incapable, of succeeding in a collegiate environment. They say:

Trying to force them there after they complete high school, when they haven’t been adequately academically prepared, isn’t the right way to do it. It only serves to embarrass them and ensure they will fail. 

But, in truth, Proposition 107 would seek to eliminate recruitment and retention programs that have demonstrably benefitted, male and female students of all races and backgrounds. If anything, Arizona should look to the model set by schools like GMU, and implement better affirmative action programs to further help recruit and retain our minority students to our state’s high schools and universities.

On November 2nd, please vote no on Proposition 107.

Cross-posted: Blog for Arizona

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