Just five months ago, the US Supreme Court decided ethnic diversity on campus was so important that selective colleges must be allowed to weigh race as one factor in a thorough admissions profile - no blunt race-based admissions formulas allowed, please. It brought cheers at the nation's elite private and public colleges and universities, where officials rejoiced that their style of admissions programs fit the ruling already.
But for some, the high court decision spotlighted another sticky question of racial equity: Just how well are colleges teaching minorities once they are admitted? Why do grades and graduation rates of minority students persistently lag those of white students?
To Borden Painter, president of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and a group of 35 presidents of liberal arts colleges that met Friday in Boston, the "minority achievement gap" is the central issue in higher education today.
"We found, and many have, that graduation rates are lower and the overall [college] experience is less satisfying for minority students," he told the group, the Consortium on High Achievement and Success (CHAS). "So we knew, long before the Michigan decision, that we had a challenge."
At 146 competitive colleges and universities, the six-year graduation rate is more than 20 points higher for white students than black students. It is seven points higher for non-Hispanic white students than Hispanic students, the CHAS group reported.
Nationwide, among young adults with at least some college, the graduation rate for African-American students (25 percent) is 19 points lower than for white students (44 percent), it reports.
Some have attributed the gap to factors ranging from differences in academic preparation to genetics. Yet studies have also shown that even where grades and test scores are equal, minority students still may underperform. To some, this suggests institutional problems, rather than individual failure. "College leaders recognize that their campus cultures must change to effectively serve an increasingly diverse student population," says Blenda Wilson, president of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which financially supports the CHAS group.
One of the critical issues being studied by the group was outlined by Claude Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. His research has focused on "stereotype threat" - a theory that students' views of themselves and their perception of others - affects their performance.
In one experiment, white and black college students were given difficult standardized tests. One set of students were told the test was being used to analyze their personal assessment. Blacks scored worse than whites. To ensure that low motivation wasn't a factor, another set of students were told the test was intended to study how problems were solved and could not be construed to reflect on intellectual ability. Black and white students performances that time matched each other.
The "stereotype threat theory" is getting a reality check at a half dozen CHAS colleges - Barnard, Holy Cross, and Trinity, among them - where it is being applied to "barrier courses." Usually, these are entry-level natural science, math, or social science courses where minority students have historically struggled more than their peers.
At Trinity College, the "student intervention" project has been applied to an introductory chemistry course. In the last three years, nearly one fifth of students earned D's and F's or withdrew. A disproportionately high percentage of those were minority students.
Lisa Nestor, laboratory coordinator in chemistry who oversees the program, says the study sessions address the stereotype threat. "We make it explicit for these minority students that we feel they can be successful," Nestor says.
Nancy Vickers, president of Bryn Mawr, says that the Supreme Court opinion written by Sandra Day O'Connor warns the higher education community that in 25 years, racial preferences should not be needed anymore in admission. "There was a huge sigh of relief after the decision came out," Dr. Vickers says. "But if we take the decision seriously, then we'll realize there is an appreciable distance for us in higher education to go."