Counting black freshmen.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Oct. 21 2002 5:59 PM

Counting Black Freshmen

A crude but telling measure of racial progress.

Here's a fact that won't be discussed much between now and Election Day: The current freshman class at the California Institute of Technology contains only three black students. This isn't quite as shocking as it sounds; though very prestigious (the faculty includes four Nobel laureates), Caltech has a very small undergraduate student body. Its freshman class consists of a mere 260 people. Still, three out of 260 comes to 1.2 percent, which is shocking enough, particularly when you consider that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (whose faculty includes 10 Nobel laureates) has a freshman class that's 6.2 percent black. That's about half the percentage of African-Americans in the U.S. population. Apparently there were a couple of years during the past decade when the percentage of blacks in Caltech's freshman class was zero. (Chatterbox gleans these facts from a new survey in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.)

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Nowadays it's considered terribly old-fashioned to assess racial progress by numerical means, but Chatterbox doesn't really see how else to do it. It can't be good news, for instance, that the University of California at Berkeley has only 142 black freshmen this year, constituting 3.9 percent of the total. That's about half as many blacks as Berkeley had before California's Proposition 209, which banned "preferential treatment" based on race, took effect during the 1998-99 school year. Affirmative action critics often complain when colleges accept a higher proportion of black applicants than of all applicants; it's taken as a sign that standards are being lowered. But why don't they complain now that Berkeley and UCLA, the two most prestigious universities in the University of California system, accept a lower proportion of black applicants than of all applicants?

Another interesting finding in the Journal's survey is that Harvard, which prides itself on maintaining the country's highest acceptance "yield"—i.e., getting the largest proportion of applicants whom it accepts to enroll—no longer maintains the country's highest black acceptance yield. Stanford does, with 64.4 percent, compared to Harvard's 61.2 percent. A decently high 6.8 percent of Harvard's freshman class is black, but that's down from 9 percent in 1993. According to an Oct. 21 article by Kate Rakoczy in the Harvard Crimson, Harvard's black acceptance yield has been heading south since the mid-1990s. This would tend to minimize the impact of Harvard President Lawrence Summers' much-publicized run-in last year with Cornel West. (It's also worth noting that Princeton, the university that West decamped to, had a sharper drop than Harvard this year in black freshman enrollment, though the percentage of blacks in its freshman class, 8.4 percent, remains higher than Harvard's. Yale, which this year saw an increase in black freshman enrollment, now stands at 8.5 percent, the highest in the Ivy League.) On the other hand, the Crimson reports that the topic of West did come up with some frequency last year in discussions with prospective black students, so it probably had some impact.

The arrested progress of black enrollment at some of the country's most prestigious colleges is a crude measure of integration. And it should be noted that black enrollment is rising at other prestigious colleges: Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon, Washington University, and Stanford all saw an increase of more than 10 percent this year in their black freshman enrollment. Still, shouldn't all the top colleges in the U.S. be seeing increases in black enrollment, or at least an absence of decline?  After all, these are the ones that should have the easiest time increasing black enrollment, both because they have the most cash to give out in financial aid and because they have the most glamour. If Harvard's having difficulty integrating, it's worth taking a moment to worry about racial progress in less pampered corners of American society.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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