While campuses around the country observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day honoring the civil rights leader’s dream for racial harmony and equality, Duke University embroils in a racial controversy.
At the center of the debate is an unpublished report authored by Duke University professors Peter Arcidiaconoy and Ken Spenner and graduate student Esteban Aucejoz entitled “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice.”
The grade point average gap between Duke’s black and white students decreases by half during their progress through college. The most significant factor, these researchers say: black students switching to easier majors.
The six-month-old report recently gained national attention after its inclusion in a brief handed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is considering a lawsuit against affirmative action policies for undergraduate admissions at the University of Texas. Perhaps in the court and in the media, the document will ultimately receive the kind of scrutiny it deserves. Arcidiaconoy, Spenner and Aucejoz say “natural science, engineering, and economics courses are more difficult, associated with higher study times, and have harsher grading standards; all of which translate into students with weaker academic backgrounds being less likely to choose these majors.”
The report indicates Duke University’s black students started out expressing more initial interest than its white students when it came to majoring in natural sciences, engineering and economics. In the end, however, 54 percent of black men and 51 percent of black women who expressed this interest changed their majors to humanities or social sciences other than economics. In contrast, data shows that 33 percent of white women and 8 percent of white men made a similar change in major.
Members of the Duke community are reasonably upset at the suggestion that Duke’s black undergraduates are lowering their expectations or taking the easy way out because they are not as prepared academically for certain subjects as their white classmates. Some are calling the data into question, and others question whether the data support the researchers’ conclusions.
Really, there is nothing wrong with switching to a different major if it’s for the right reasons: changes in personal interest, professional interests and graduate study or work opportunities.
Individuals have to understand that their preferences for humanities and social sciences can sometimes have some long-term consequences, however, when it comes to earning potential and unemployment rates. The choice is one’s own and that has the facts necessary to make the informed decision.
When individuals switch majors not because of preference but because they are not academically prepared, then we have a problem.
Either students require better preparation for the majors that inspire them or they need a more realistic set of expectations for what some difficult majors require.
Students from Duke’s Black Students Association want Duke University to make an intervention based on report findings. The group responded to the lack of response they perceived from the university since June 2011 when the report was authored. The group sent an email to the state NAACP saying that the faculty did not adequately express “a genuine concern for proactively furthering the well-being of the black community.”
If the report is valid, is there anything Duke University can do about any students who are not prepared academically for certain majors before coming to the institution? In order to be proactive, change needs to happen in primary and secondary education where college prep takes place. Public schools should be able to reasonably prepare students for any college major they choose.
One major problem I hear from students of all backgrounds is that when they are in high school, counselors tell them they can take the classes they want to take. Of course, many enroll in less than challenging courses. All along, teachers tell them they can go on to college where they can study to be any kind of professional person. Students graduate and find that the courses they chose to take in high school in no way prepared them for the core curriculum of their college majors.
The Duke University study is understandably controversial for its racial implications, but it hardly stands as an indictment of that institution. Rather the report should lead us to further question how we prepare all students interested in rigorous studies before they come to college.