Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Statistics 4 U

If we have to have a core curriculum in university, we're definitely choosing the wrong subjects to emphasize. For example, I think a basic survey course in statistics would be more useful to most undergrads than the course I currently have to teach to earn my keep around here.

The public is shockingly ignorant of statistics; I run across new examples every day. Today's just so happens to come from Black Enterprise Magazine. On p. 14 of the September 2006 edition there is an article called "Diversity University" (sorry, no link without login, and I'm not a subscriber) about black acceptance and enrollment rates at major universities. The article is about the "progress" blacks are making getting accepted to predominantly white universities. So what's wrong with that, you ask? Well, nothing - except that the statistics cited show much more than progress. They show that blacks, in fact, have a better chance of getting in to some of the big-name universities than whites.

Take Penn, Brown, and Cornell (the only three universities on their chart for which full numbers are provided). At the University of Pennsylvania, 18,824 applied and 3.913 were accepted - an acceptance rate of 20.8%. Not bad, but for blacks it was even better. 1,229 blacks applied and 367 were accepted - an acceptance rate of 29.9%. The numbers for Brown show an overall acceptance rate of 15.3%, with a 23.2% rate for blacks; for Cornell it's 27.1% for the general population but 36.4% for blacks.

However, the same chart shows that blacks make up only 7.6% of Penn's freshman class, 6.6% of Brown's, and 5.6% of Cornell's. Since blacks are roughly 13% of the population, it could be argued that there should be more of them. Even so, it strikes me that it cannot be convincingly argued that blacks face a higher hurdle for acceptance than whites, or that prestigious universities are not making an effort to recruit and accept them. The problem seems to be that not enough of them apply. That sounds like something only the black community itself can solve. As Bill Cosby might have said, they're not holding their end in this [affirmative action] deal.

In any case, I find it troubling that a magazine can blithely display a page like this and talk about "progress" when the numbers clearly show that the goal has long been met. They're counting, in other words, on their readers not doing the math. It's even more troubling that so many politicians continue to be convinced by these (non-)arguments.


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