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College Chiefs Urged To Shed Elitist Tendencies At ACE Conference

“The Access Imperative” is the theme of this year’s American Council on Education Annual Meeting, which concludes today in Washington. College administrators gathered for the conference on Monday received some stern advice for achieving the diversity they say they want: Stop relying on SAT scores and other assessments that are really only accessible to the elite. 

That message came from author Ron Suskind, who, in his plenary speech Monday morning, detailed his experience chronicling the journey of Cedric Jennings from one of the worst performing high schools in the nation to Brown University in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal articles. Those articles formed the basis of his book, A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League.   

Suskind told of a conversation he had with a colleague who was writing about  children overcoming the travails of war-torn Bosnia.  Suskind said although he was moved by the Bosnia story, he felt there was a war zone right in his backyard, as his journey to “to the worst high school I can find in America” was not 20 miles from his vaunted perch at the Wall Street Journal’s D.C. bureau. At the time, Suskind said, Ballou Senior High School, had 1,400 students and 400 of them were absent and unaccounted for on any given day.

“It’s a nightmare. Twelve kids a year are killed who either are or ought to have been in school. …  How could this be in a land of such dizzying prosperity?” Suskind asked.

Suskind said that many colleges that rely on SAT scores and AP credits fail to enroll talented but underprivileged students from the areas like “war zone environment” that pervaded the poverty and crime-plagued Southeast quadrant of D.C. in the early 1990s. Though Jennings ended up graduating from Brown as a 3.3 GPA double major, he wouldn’t have had a chance if Brown only relied on his incoming SAT score of 910 as a basis for admitting him.

In fact, University of California, Berkeley Professor Dr. Ronald Takaki, in his response to Suskind’s speech, said colleges should stop putting so much stock in AP credits and SAT scores.

“We all know that AP courses are offered in abundance in suburban schools, but AP courses are scarce in urban school and in rural schools. …  One thing we know for certain about SAT scores, they correlate with family income, they rise together. Clearly, the playing field is not level or fair.”

Suskind exhorted the crowd of college and university presidents assembled to hear his plenary speech to be honest about the elitist traditions that pervade many facets of their schools, and then work to proactively diversify their institutions not just ethnically, but economically.

“The fact is, we’re often not honest with ourselves. It’s hard to give up those SAT scores tattooed in your arm. It’s hard to give up the feeling of the ooh-ahhs that you went to a great university. …  The problem is that we think we’re better because of these things that we’ve been able to grab hold of, and we’re not. And it’s only that kind of self-appraisal that allows us to see the light hidden often under bushel baskets that really will make us better.”

–David Pluviose


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