Playing by the minority rules Thomas Sowell's expert view of how racial issues complicate the search for a school
(MONEY Magazine) – Thomas Sowell, 60, has a unique perspective on the special problems blacks and other minorities face in higher education today. At 16, he dropped out of Stuyvesant High School in New York City to deliver telegrams for Western Union; later he worked as a shipping clerk in the garment district and did a two-year stint in the Marine Corps. In 1955, Sowell, then 25, enrolled at Howard University on the G.I. Bill and later transferred to Harvard. After graduating, he went on to get a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. He has held teaching posts at Cornell and UCLA, among other colleges, and published numerous scholarly works. He has also written Choosing a College (Harper & Row, $7.95), a volume of advice on finding the right school. Sowell, now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif., is known for his conservative views. In his latest book, Preferential Policies (Morrow, $17.95), he argues that when a college admits minorities who don't meet the school's normal standards, those students suffer because they can't keep up with their classmates, and campus racial tensions inevitably increase. Recently, MONEY Guide staffers Walter L. Updegrave and Rhonda Johnson asked Sowell to discuss the factors that blacks and other minorities must consider when evaluating colleges. Below are highlights of the conversation:
MONEY: You warn that one of the biggest dangers for minority students is being mismatched with a college. Please explain.
Sowell: Unfortunately, the long history of substandard public school education for blacks and other minorities has resulted in an insufficient pool of minority students qualified for the top-tier colleges. I came across this at Cornell back in the '60s. I learned that half the black students there were on academic probation, so I went to the office and looked up the records. The average black student had SAT scores in the 75th percentile nationally, while the average white student scored in the 99th percentile. That's why the students were on probation. Mismatching starts at the top schools and goes right on down the line. To get the right number of minority students -- or what I call the body count -- many of the best schools take students who don't meet their normal standards. One result is that thousands of black students in California, for example, who could handle the standards at a school such as Cal State Northridge are instead flunking out at Berkeley. In a sense, these schools rent the bodies for as long as the students can stay eligible, and when they're through, they throw them out.
MONEY: So how do you avoid the mismatching trap?
Sowell: The best way is to know thyself -- know thy SATs. Not that the Scholastic Aptitude Test is the be-all and end-all. But if your scores are 200 points below the school average, you may be asking for trouble. For one thing, these tests are a rough proxy of your reading speed. They also measure how fast you are in math. Now if you go to a high-powered place, three semesters' worth of calculus may be covered in just two semesters. Which is to say you may be lost halfway through the first semester, even though you could have mastered the subject at the normal pace.
MONEY: What are some of the other issues minority students must consider when choosing a school?
Sowell: The first thing they must do is gauge the racial atmosphere of the college. Racial relations on the nation's campuses today are worse than they have been at any time in the past 30 years.
MONEY: What do you think accounts for that?
Sowell: If you're going to have double standards for admission, grading, behavior and faculty hiring and, on top of that, engage in a great hypocritical pretense that this isn't going on, it will only be a matter of time before the people who are not getting special treatment become resentful. Moreover, when you bring minority students in under a double standard, they themselves have a serious problem. They can accept the standards of the institution and lose all self-respect when they fail to meet them. Or they can seek to regain their self-respect through political activity -- by putting pressure on the school administration to change the standards. When you give people those choices -- meeting tough standards or lobbying to have the standards lowered -- it's not surprising they choose the second option. When you have the racial polarization created by this political uproar, blacks and whites are likely to be more hostile.
MONEY: How do you detect racial tension on campus before you enroll?
Sowell: In places where race relations are really bad, it doesn't take long to find out. A campus visit will tell you. I always suggest you go to the dining room at lunchtime and see whether all the blacks are congregated over here, all the Hispanics over there or whether people are mixed around the room. An alternative is to subscribe to the student newspaper. If things are sufficiently bad, you'll find out. I would also suggest talking to the head of the Black Students Union.
MONEY: Some black students avoid this racial strife altogether by enrolling in all-black schools. Is this the proper response?
Sowell: In fact, there has been some increase in the number of black kids going to black colleges, including kids who have the qualifications to get into bigger-name places. Is it a good decision? That depends on the individual. If you don't plan to live your life in an all-black enclave, there must be some point at which you make a transition. But you have to pick and choose schools very carefully. Many black students are the first members of ( their families to attend college and have probably never heard of places like Whitman, Harvey Mudd, Franklin and Marshall or Kenyon or other schools where race relations are somewhat better than average. And so that may be part of the difficulty. Their effective choices are very limited.
MONEY: In Choosing a College, you make a surprising statement: that no black college is suitable for a black student who has combined SAT scores of 1,000 or better and good high school grades. Do you believe that is still true today?
Sowell: As far as I know, it is. Unfortunately, at most black colleges and universities, the SAT level will be below the national average, so an above- average student will be academically mismatched. But even so, a black college may still be the best option if he is worried about the racial hassle he may get at a mixed school.
MONEY: Let's address financial aid. During the '80s, financial aid increased at about only half the pace of private college tuition. Can minority students still find the money they need?
Sowell: The financial aid is out there. The fact is that a higher percentage of black students receive financial aid than any other group. One problem, though, is that only the richest schools are able to offer the financial aid that the students, particularly minority students, need, and that's one of the things that help produce this mismatching. I've suggested recently that the federal government ought to finance low-income students fully and directly, without going through the schools' financial aid offices. If the government is footing the bill, it shouldn't be footing it for colleges to mismatch students and have them fail.