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Studies refute perceptions of open admissions and educational attainment – Special Report Top 100 Degree Producers

Ultimately, the question of affirmative action will not be decided in the Supreme Court but by the public, which has been barraged by arguments that no matter what can be said about fairness and justice, affirmative action — and even desegregation — “just doesn’t work.”

After a generation of affirmative action and desegregation, the argument goes, average SAT scores are dropping and there are still racial tensions on campuses.

But interesting new data and analyses are slowly building a different picture about the last two decades of education that point to different conclusions.

One of the newest pieces of information comes from a long-term study done of the open admissions policy at City University of New York, arguably one of the biggest experiments in affirmative action in the country. In 1970, any student with a high school grade point average of 80 or more or who graduated in the top half of a high school graduating class could enter one of the university’s four-year colleges. Students with an average of 70 were admitted into the two-year community colleges. More than 34,000 students poured into CUNY, up from 17,645 a year before. In one year the enrollment in the university system went from 9 percent minority to 24 percent.

The failures of the open admissions policy have been catalogued extensively — that those admitted under the open admissions policy were simply invited to fail as seen by high drop-out rates and extremely high remediation rates. Poorly prepared for college work, the students were easily discouraged and, in fact, managed to drag down the quality of the entire university, the argument went. It has become almost axiomatic that the open admissions policy was a disaster.

But when those same students are followed for more than a couple of years, a different picture emerges, according to a new study that will be published by Yale University Press this month, “Changing the Odds — Open Admissions and the Life Chances of the Disadvantaged.”

In that study, conducted by David E. Lavin and David Hyllegard, it appears that although students admitted under the open admissions standards typically take longer — six to eight years is not uncommon 56 percent of them do graduate and about 18 percent go on for post-graduate work.

“Once they get the bug, they’ve got to go back,” is the way Rand researcher David Grissmer reacted when he heard of the study.

Grissmer has been working on data that fits together another piece of the educational picture.

His findings, presented to the annual conference of the Education Writers Association in late April — some of which had been previously published and some of which is due to be published soon — are that the educational achievement of Black students has been increasing rapidly over the past twenty years. It is particularly dramatic in the South, which desegregated over those years. The South is where white students made the biggest gains as well.

In addition, he looked at the demographic factors that are important in educational achievement, and he found that what matters most is the educational attainment of the parents. Family income and whether the student had a single parent or a working mother had some effect, but the most important single demographic effect was educational attainment of the parents. The other important demographic factor is the size of families.

In other words, if a student comes from a small family where college is a tradition, he or she is more likely to succeed educationally. And, Grissmer says, because families have grown smaller and more people are earning college degrees, an increase in educational progress should be seen over the past twenty years.

And that is exactly what Grissmer sees when he analyses the data.

To begin with, Grissmer argues that the SAT is completely worthless in terms of assessing educational progress. Whatever its worth in predicting the success of individual students in their freshman year, it was never designed to be a tool of assessing the educational progress of the nation.

From being a test that only a select group of high school students bound for elite colleges took, the SAT is now taken by 40 percent of high school students. Many researchers attribute the drop in SAT scores to the fact that it reaches into a broader section of the population. Moreover, the SAT does nothing to assess the educational attainment of the other 60 percent of the student body who do not plan to attend college.

A better measure of educational attainment, argues Grissmer, is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has administered tests to representative samples of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds every four years and has collected demographic data such as race since 1975.

When NAEP data is used to assess whether there has been a drop or increase in educational attainment, the story is dramatically different from when SAT scores are used. While overall SAT scores have been declining (though Black SAT scores have been rising), NAEP scores have been increasing — particularly for Black students and even more particularly in the South and West, the two regions in which white students have also posted the greatest gains, though not as dramatic as Blacks.

The gains are most dramatic, in fact, among the 60 percent of students who would not be expected to take the SAT.

Grissmer thus makes the argument that with a fairly modest increase in public money going to public education, very respectable, sometimes even dramatic, gains have been made in educational progress.

“There’s a coherent story that is emerging about the last 25 years,” says Grissmer.

That picture is that modest increases in educational investment produce dramatic gains in educational achievement, particularly for those not expected to go onto college. But if those students are then given the opportunity to go to college — as they were in New York in 1970 — they may labor for many years to get their degree, often while working full time’ but they do.

There is no way to measure what that means in terms of their overall quality of life, but the Lavin-Hyllegard study estimates that the lifetime earnings of those who entered CUNY as open admissions students can be expected to be $2 billion higher than they would have been without the open admissions policy.

“Our data indicate that it provided opportunities that students used well, and that translated into direct benefits in the job market and clearly augmented the economic base,” said Lavin.

And it is hardly a stretch to infer that the children of those who entered as open admissions students will go on to achieve at higher levels than they would have if their parents had never had the opportunity to attend college.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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