Review: Race on Campus

race on campus

Race on CampusJulie J. Park. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2018.

Summary: Addresses myths and misconceptions around issues of race on college campus using research data.

Race continues to be an issue on campus as well as in our larger society. It is popular to note how students of color may be found sitting together in the college cafeteria and self-segregate into ethnic-specific organizations. Some object to using race in admissions processes and argue that the same ends might be achieved by class-based admissions alone. Of course, affirmative action is argued back and forth, and the case has been made for students with high test scores who were turned down for admissions including those from Asian-American backgrounds. Recognizing some of the inequities in college tests, proposals have been made to remedy with offering universal test prep. Some have recommended that affirmative action programs at some of the nations elite schools “mismatch” students of color and set them up for failure, when they may have excelled at a lower tier university.

These are the issues Julie J. Park, an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, addresses in Race on Campus. Her approach is to come up with data-driven insights from peer-reviewed research to explore if what is being proposed or observed is actually the case. Often times, she argues, the data reveals a very different story, and that cognitive bias is actually a big issue in discussions where data belies what is contended. Here is a sampling of some of her findings:

  • The self-segregation of students of color in cafeterias and organizations reflect only an hour or two a day of a student’s life, and that students in ethnic specific organizations actually have more interactions with those of other ethnicity. Times with one’s own ethnic minority re-energizes students for engagement across ethnic boundaries. She also observes that most of us don’t notice that all the white students are also sitting together, or the instances where students are crossing boundaries.
  • Where self-segregation is a greater issue is in Greek life on campuses, as well as in religious organizations. Especially in the Greek system, self-segregation leads to fewer interactions with non-White students. This is less the case in religious organizations, but most students in self-segregating religious groups will have fewer close friends of another ethnicity.
  • Studies show that admissions processes that are both race- and class-conscious result in far more diverse classes than class-conscious approaches alone. She observes the wealth gap between median household wealth of Black and White families ($7,113 versus $111,146) and that this supports that we need to focus on race to get to class diversity because of disparities in wealth.
  • Asian-American students actually benefit from affirmative action, both by not being discriminated against, and in being part of more diverse student bodies. The discussion here goes beyond the test scores to the variety of factors in a student’s profile that are considered in admissions and student success. She deconstructs the “140 points” myth (that Asian-American students need to score 140 points higher on the SAT to be competitive with other students for admission).
  • There are all kinds of problems with admissions tests and the test-prep programs touted to bring big score increases. The actual overall gains, from test to test using test prep are minimal. Furthermore, there are inequities both in educational backgrounds that cannot be made up for with a test prep course, and inequities of access to the best test prep programs that make tests like the SAT an unreliable measure of how a student will perform.
  • The problem with the “problem of mismatch” is that under-represented minority students admitted to elite schools on the whole do about as well, and in some cases, better than majority students. Here, Park takes apart a study by Sander and Taylor that has been invoked for encouraging students to go to “slower-track” institutions.

This is a winsomely written book addressing a tough subject. I especially appreciate the epistemic humility of Park, who in the course of her research discovers some of her own cognitive biases, and has the courage to admit them. I also appreciate an academic citing academic research who writes accessibly for a wide audience. In the Introduction, she says,

“Who should read this book? Everyone! If you’re a graduate student, academic, policy-maker, educator, everyday citizen–come on in. One of my key goals is to highlight empirical studies on race in a way that is more accessible than the original peer-reviewed journal articles, which are primarily read by academics. Don’t get me wrong, academic journals are riveting reading, but it can be tedious to comb through study after study, so I’ve done that work for you. I’ve also done my best to write this book in a conversational tone to make it accessible to a wide range of readers” (p. 6).

I believe she succeeds on both counts. The work is meticulously researched with 32 pages of end notes in a book that comes in at under 200 pages. Park keeps it accessible, citing key statistics within the text without bar charts and graphs (which I know will disappoint some). The tone remains conversational, and Park avoids the “detached researcher” voice that often result in accurate but sterile works.

This work is important for its conclusions as well–that we are tempted to adopt policy proposals driven by cognitive bias rather than data, that we need more robust measures of merit than test scores that recognize different ways excellence manifests in students across race and class, and that racism and racial inequalities continue to need to be addressed on campus. The book challenged some of my own cognitive biases around issues like self-segregation.  This is an important book for anyone connected to higher education who aspire to seeing campuses as diverse as our population, that prepare students to lead in a diverse society.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

5 thoughts on “Review: Race on Campus

  1. RACE ON CAMPUS appears to be another exercise in navel-gazing. To claim that Asian-American students benefit from Affirmative Action programs is prima facie nonsense. The author’s poor grammar reinforces her poor reasoning. Declarative sentences should end in periods, not commas. To link two together by using a comma is a bonehead mistake most of us learn to avoid in high school. There’s even a name for it: run-on sentences. Who should buy this book? “Everyone.” No doubt.

    • I read the book differently. Instead of basing conclusions on personal impressions, she gets into the weeds of the data, to suggest that common impressions, perhaps based on feeling, are belied by facts.

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2018 | Bob on Books

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