A Time for Innovative Thinking

A Time for Innovative Thinking

In a recent article in Black Issues In Higher Education, a U.S. Department of Education official stated that he knew of few strategies for making graduate and professional school accessible to African Americans. Since I knew of at least one (I developed it), I e-mailed it to him. He remarked on its timeliness given the admissions cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court and wished that I could share it with everyone. Taking his words to heart, I offer it to others in the hopes that we will all take up the challenge to think and act creatively about how we approach diversity in the 21st century.

For seven years, I was the assistant dean for student affairs at the graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland-College Park. When I arrived in the fall of 1988, there was only one African American pre-career master’s student in a class of 35. I was charged by the dean with increasing both the size and diversity of the pre-career student population and named non-voting chair of the admissions committee to lead the effort. During my seven years at Maryland, I learned that admissions is an art, not a science. It cannot be reduced to multiple regressions of standardized test scores and grade point averages (GPAs) to determine success.

As chair of the admissions committee, I soon realized that many students of color were being rejected because of abysmal performances on the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), the required standardized test for our program, despite solid GPAs in the appropriate undergraduate majors. In the minds of the faculty, these low scores on the more “objective” standardized test indicated that the students’ GPAs were inflated. Upon interviewing the students, I discovered, to my horror, that many were walking into the test and taking them cold, having been told by the creator of the test, the Educational Testing Service, or faculty advisers that one could not prepare for such tests.

In response I did several things. First, when speaking with faculty, students and counselors about the program, I made very clear that our program had a “floor” for standardized test scores that no GPA or letters of recommendation could overcome. Second, I encouraged students to adequately prepare themselves using prep books, test prep software, or, if they could afford it, preparation courses to improve their scores before taking the test. I shared with them that as a student at Yale University, I knew that very few of the supposedly “best and brightest” considered walking into a standardized test for graduate or professional school without taking the Stanley Kaplan course. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I instituted a policy that stated the program would only consider the best set of GRE scores for all applicants, whether it was their first or 51st time taking the test. This was particularly important for students of color who could then retake the test after sufficient preparation and without being penalized for receiving misinformation. When I left, the pre-career class had grown to 50 students, 8 of whom were African American.

Yes, we must fight to save affirmative action but to have only one strategy in a war is foolhardy. As we approach a post-affirmative action world, our response also must be to focus on developing race-neutral policies that disproportionately benefit students of color just as race-neutral policies of the past, like requiring standardized tests, have disproportionately penalized these students. The smart fighters hope for the best but plan for the worst. As combatants determined to win, we must also have plans B, C and D. At a time when old methods are being forced to give way to new political, economic and social realities, those of us engaged in the work of diversity must chart a new and innovative course. It is time for innovative thinking.

— Dr. Elisse Wright is the special assistant to the president for diversity initiatives at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

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