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Some Math and Economics Related to Race and Education

Craft Erik[362943]

The Supreme Court recently ruled that race could not be used in determining admissions at colleges and universities. The case pitted the values of diversity and righting past injustices against the value of equal treatment for individuals in equal circumstances.

Rather than discuss how to balance those values, I offer observations about the ruling’s implications and an alternative approach to improve educational opportunities for those from historically disadvantaged groups. Given that changing the status quo is always difficult, focusing attention where political effort yields the largest benefits makes sense.

Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade estimated between 10,000 and 15,000 Black and Hispanic students enroll in selective colleges on account of race-conscious policies. That is one percent of all Black and Hispanic 18-year-olds. Like most white students, most Black and Hispanic students enroll in colleges and universities that have essentially open admissions.Dr, Erik CraftDr, Erik Craft

Just as the University of Texas at Austin guarantees admission for graduates in the top 10% of one’s class for Texans, many other colleges and universities around the country will provide similar opportunities, vitiating the effect of the recent Supreme Court ruling.

It would appear that only a portion of a small number of minority students will be directly affected by the ruling. Some students admitted to Harvard and Carleton will instead attend places like the University of Richmond and the University of Michigan. And some of the students at the latter schools will attend the Luthers and Southern Methodist Universities of the nation. And some of the students at the latter schools will attend nonselective colleges.

A valid concern is that reduced attendance at elite colleges and universities by students from historically disadvantaged groups will slow progress in narrowing earnings gaps between racial groups. Helpfully, labor economists have studied the earnings effect of attending an elite college or university.

Over twenty years ago, Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale compared earnings of students who were admitted to elite schools but did not attend with those who did. They found no difference in earnings, suggesting that student attributes were key to success, not the elite setting. Although the sample for Black students was small, the estimates were no different for the subgroup. They did find that students from lower income families increased their earnings by 7% when attending schools with significantly higher SAT admission averages. This main research finding has been confirmed in two follow-up studies. In another pathbreaking study in July, Raj Chetty and colleagues at Harvard confirmed again that attending an Ivy League college had no measurable effect on average earnings compared to top public colleges, with one intriguing exception; the probability a student would reach the top 1% of the income distribution rose by about 60%. 

What can be done to narrow education and earnings gaps across racial groups? Reforms and increased resources for preschool and primary and secondary schools likely provide more opportunities, in part because many more students are affected. There are numerous dimensions upon which historically disadvantaged grade school and high school students have significantly poorer outcomes and access to resources and college preparation courses. That so much discussion takes place with regard to admission policies to elite colleges instead of equalizing opportunities to prepare for college is disconcerting.

Grade, middle, and high schools are the part of our educational system where the United States suffers in comparison with other developed counties. Our colleges and universities are among the top in the world, but according to the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. fifteen-year-olds ranked 21st in reading, math, and science skills, just slightly above the average for 2018 participating OECD countries.

A review of school systems across countries in a top economics journal confirmed a long-standing paradox found in research on U.S. schools. Class size, at least when not extremely large or small, does not seem to play a large role in learning. More important, it appears, is the amount of instruction time and teacher quality.

If the United States is to provide the skills necessary to be successful in a modern economy, as well as reduce economic inequality, improving underperforming primary and secondary schools must be our focus. Perhaps it is time to consider seriously lengthening the school calendar. Or at a minimum, providing funds to schools that underperform to lengthen their academic calendars.

Leaders should also consider other reforms that combine more flexibility in school management and more resources. School reform might not be as sexy and motivating as fighting about racial preferences in universities, but it is vastly more important to disadvantaged students.

Dr. Erik Craft is a faculty member at the University of Richmond where he teaches Principles of Microeconomics courses focused on inequality and economic mobility. Craft can be reached at [email protected].




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