UW-Madison campus leaders and minority students responded as expected to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Equal Opportunity report that revealed “severe discrimination” based on race and ethnicity in UW-Madison undergraduate admissions.

Campus leaders claimed their “holistic” admissions process is consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision on the University of Michigan affirmative action cases. Protesting students said they were offended by CEO’s report and on Sept. 13 disrupted CEO President Roger Clegg’s press conference at the DoubleTree Hotel.

How does UW-Madison justify its approach to minority admissions decisions? Its freshman application handbook says the admissions office employs two standards. A “competitive” standard is used to admit the best academically prepared applicants. A “selective” standard is used to admit targeted minority applicants to increase racial/ethnic diversity.

How does the admission process work? On their application forms, applicants identify their race/ethnicity. As applicant files are reviewed, applications from the best academically prepared applicants are accepted. Applications from rejected minorities get an additional review not given to rejected nonminorities. How the admissions office decides who among these initially rejected minority applicants are to be admitted remains shrouded in mystery.

UW-Madison admissions data reveal that admission rates rise with the level of academic achievement, which is no great surprise. For both targeted minority and nonminority applicants who can be described as “highly competitive,” based on exceptionally strong ACT scores and high school class rank, their admission rates are close to 100 percent.

What about applicants most people would describe as “not competitive?” These applicants are generally in the bottom 70 percent of their high school class and ACT scores of less than 24.The data show that 43 percent of these targeted minority applicants are admitted compared to only 13 percent of nonminority applicants.

For those applicants I would describe as “marginally competitive,” those with somewhat stronger combinations of high school class rank and ACT scores, 84 percent of targeted minority applicants are admitted compared to only 25 percent of nonminority applicants.

What difference does this make? It makes a big difference. It creates a cruel outcome for many targeted minorities who are supposed to be helped, those who were admitted and viewed as having, in the words of Interim Chancellor David Ward, the “potential and capacity to succeed.”

But among these “not competitive” admittees, more than 50 percent of targeted minority students fail to graduate within six years, as contrasted to 30 percent for nonminority students. Graduation rates for “marginally competitive” and “competitive” targeted minority students are 20 percentage points below those for nonminority students. This evidence raises several key questions.

• Does it make educational sense to admit under the “selective” standard targeted minority applicants whose likely six-year graduation rate is less than 50 percent?

• Does it make economic sense to spend $25 million in 2008-09 on minority/disadvantaged programs in the unrealized hope of remedying the weaker academic achievement of these targeted minority students?

• Is it wise to award up to another $6 million in racially-exclusive scholarships and grants to these targeted minority students whose graduation prospects are less than that indicated by the flip of a coin?

• Can’t more effective ways of spending these large sums of money be found?

Campus administrators should consider these questions as they face the challenge of reducing expenditures to meet state-imposed reductions in UW-Madison’s 2011-12 budget.

W. Lee Hansen is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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