A Howard University Student on Justice Scalia

DiversityInc intern Savannah Milleriscurrently a freshmanat Howard University.


By Savannah Miller

In the midst of the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made a few alarming comments concerning the competence of African American students:

“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well. One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for themI’m just not impressed by the fact the University of Texas may have fewer [blacks]. Maybe it ought to have fewer. I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.”

Although Justice Scalia’s prejudice statement is clearly offensive to African American scholars, and undermines the capabilities African American across the nation, there is some truth in his words. In an article published by the Huffington Post last year, they took a deeper look into African American scholastic success in respect to those who had attained their Ph.D from 2002-2011.

In their findings of African Americans who went on to receive their Ph.D in science or engineering, they found that they most commonly received their undergraduate degree at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). In fact, there was not a single predominantly white institution (PWI) in the top three or top five schools. The University of Maryland at Baltimore County tied with Tuskegee University for the tenth highest producer. However, it is important to note that “Maryland’s HBCUS, Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore are major feeders” into University of Maryland Baltimore County and College Park graduate programs after a “successful lawsuit on HBCU equity in the state of Maryland.”

So the better question is not, “Why continue implementing affirmative action when African Americans aren’t doing well” but, “Why aren’t African Americans doing as well in predominantly white institutions, despite affirmative action efforts”

Before we can answer that question, we need to address the “less advanced schools” Justice Scalia is talking about. When it comes to college rankings, HBCUs like Howard, Spelman, Florida A&M, and Hampton are not comparable to PWIs like University of Maryland, Harvard, Yale, Brown, or Cornell in terms of rankings and facilities. Yet, they are the highest ranked HBCUs in the nation. But, what if I told you that the combined sum of endowments from all 105 HBCUs amount to less than 10% of Harvard University’s endowment alone

HBCUs are financially incapable of providing educational experiences equal to those of Ivy League status or even those of large state universities. They cannot afford state of the art facilities and equipment, and are constantly faced with financial pressures. Yet, they produce the largest numbers of Ph.D professionals in the country, proving that their overall contributions are far from “lesser” in comparison to their counterparts.

Another misconception is that students who choose to attend an HBCU could not compete at “better” schools. However, over the last seven years at Howard University, the incoming freshman class average on the SAT equaled and surpassed not only the national average, but also the white national average on the SAT.

So, it’s not that my peers are academically incapable of succeeding “at a school like the University of Texas.”

However, despite the rankings and resources, there is one thing HBCUs offer that these other aspiring affirmative action intuitions do not. HBCUs can closely relate to their students, on a cultural level, and provide the support to help their students become successful.

According to the 2015 State of the University Address to Alumni from Howard University President Wayne Fredrick, 59% of undergraduates are Pell Grant recipients, and the average Adjust Gross Income is $60,000.

With the money they do have, HBCUs keep their tuition realistic and make it easier for students to attain merit-based scholarships. According to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), member colleges charge about $6,600 less than comparable institutions.

Secondly, the overall experience that a student has at an HBCU varies drastically from one at a PWI. From the moment we step on campus, we are no longer competing on the basis of race. There is a genuine sense of equality and kinship, rather than just meeting a satisfactory quota.

I personally experienced this while I was touring colleges, and this helped me make my decision. On a visit to Montclair State University, I waited 10 minutes for a representative to finish talking to a white male in front of me about math majors, opportunities, and internships. When my sister approached her about actuarial science, the representative told her to “look on the website” and that “we’re close to New York so there’s plenty of opportunities.” That was the first time I had ever experienced racial favoritism, and could only imagine how difficult it would be for me to receive guidance and assistance at a school like this.

When I went to visit Howard University, I spent an hour with the dean of the honors program in the School of Communications. She walked me around the building, introducing me to students and professors, and talking about opportunities. The school felt like a family, and everyone was open to talking about their experiences and opportunities Howard has to offer.

UNCF also found that “some HBCUs do a much better job at of giving disadvantaged students the tutoring and extra help they need than do larger and less specialized colleges.” So, although HBCUs do have a much broader range in their academic requirements for admission, they really do seek out potential and help students reach their goals. Check out this video from Calvin Mackie entitled “From Remedial Reading to Ph.D” that outlines what Morehouse College did for him.

In Mackie’s address to the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) at the National Conference, he tells his inspirational story. He scored an 840 (on a 1600 scale) on the SAT, which coincidentally aligns with the National African American average. While attending a college fair, schools like the Georgia Institute of Technology wouldn’t even give him an application after hearing his SAT score. In June 1985, Mackie attended Morehouse College. At an eighth grade reading level, he started in remedial reading with 0.0 credits. Yet he completed his degree at Morehouse in 3.5 years, “#1 in mathematics, #5 in the largest class they ever produced, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa,” he shares in his speech. In 1990 he received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech, then his master’s in mechanical engineering two years later. In 1996, Mackie became one of 11 African Americans in the country that year to receive a Ph.D in mechanical engineeringfrom Georgia Tech, the very school that wouldn’t even give him an application.

So, the solution to generating positive results amongst African Americans is not to send us to “less advanced schools” but to work more diligently to meet our needs. Mackie’s credentials were well below those of an ideal applicant, but Morehouse College gave him a chance when no one else would. They took the time to groom him into the engineer he wanted to be and to do things people never imagined. Naturally, students are going to fall behind if the course load is too much or moves too fast, but that is not an excuse for dismissing the needs of the students and neglecting to offer those remedial courses that serve as the foundation for their success. Like Napoleon Hill said, “The starting point of all achievement is desire” not GPA or SAT scores, and schools like the University of Texas should take that into consideration when catering to their students.

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