The lead story at The Chronicle of Higher Education today (subscription needed) is “What Minorities Can Do to Graduate More Minority Ph.D.’s.” It’s all pretty predictable, and I’m afraid my responses will be, too.
First, there is no reason for universities to strive for more Ph.D.’s of this color rather than that color. Such a focus leads, sooner rather than later, to discrimination – to preferences aimed at helping the “underrepresented” groups and keeping down the number of the “overrepresented” groups (which include not only WASPs but, often even more so, Asians and Jews). For all kinds of reasons having nothing to do with discrimination, few professional niches match precisely the demographics of the general population. There is nothing sinister about this. If there are students who don’t know about opportunities, then by all means tell them, but there is no reason to fret if African American students prefer advanced degrees in education rather than chemistry, and Asian Americans vice versa, or if Arab Americans prefer graduate studies more than Latinos.
Second, the inherent irrationality, unfairness, and divisiveness of a preferential focus aside, it raises serious legal issues. The Chronicle article does acknowledge this, particularly for programs that are not just racially preferential but racially exclusive. These are clearly illegal and, thus, have mostly been abandoned. (The other good point made by the Chronicle article is that problems with graduate programs often affect students of all colors, and if those problems are fixed, then all students will benefit.)
Third, one reason — unmentioned in the Chronicle article — for the “shortage” of some ethnic groups in Ph.D. programs is, ironically, the mismatch effect of misguided affirmative-action programs. That is, undergraduate admission preferences result in black and Latino students getting lower undergraduate grades and, thus, being less likely to go on to graduate school (see Increasing Faculty Diversity: The Occupational Choices of High-Achieving Minority Students by Stephen Cole and Elinor Barber). And graduate admission preferences result in the supposed “beneficiaries” being less likely to finish the program successfully than they would be at a school where their qualifications are on par with the rest of the student body’s (see the work of UCLA’s Richard Sander).
Finally, and at this point I will defer to George Leef, why exactly do we need more Ph.D.’s of any color?