Illustration for article titled Bias Shows in Duke Study on College Majors

The New Math column will focus on exploring the various crisis points that are floating in the national conversation. Nothing is off-limits, from economic theory to global development to the interplay between politics and community action. Ultimately, we will try to answer one key question that is sure to set the tone of 2012: What does our society need now?


A recent study out of Duke University is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. The study, titled, "What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice" (pdf), purports that black students are switching out of more rigorous majors as a result of affirmative action policies that allow inadequately prepared students onto the college playing field.

The trouble is that the hypothesis the researchers put together is strangely rigid and narrow: Their introduction establishes clearly that there is a preparation gap between black and white students, which results in lower grades for black students entering college. But then the researchers explain that the gap should close after a few years in college — and it does, proving their initial assertion.


However, the writers try to step the data out even further, saying that the elimination of the gap isn't because of black students catching up with their white counterparts but because they chose courses of study that have a higher rate of grade inflation. They present the gap between black students majoring in humanities fields (which they claim have higher rates of grade inflation) and black students in majors like economics, science, technology, engineering and math.

In the researchers' words: "Although blacks and whites initially have similar interests regarding whether to major in the more strictly graded, the patterns of switching result in 68 percent of blacks choosing humanities and social science majors compared to less than 55 percent of whites. We show that accounting for these two issues can explain virtually all the convergence of black/white grades."

The authors rely on tremendous leaps of logic to arrive at their goal: finding "proof" that affirmative action works against minorities by trying to contort a set of data to fit their own assumptions.

The New York Times' Economix blog recently zeroed in on the engineering major specifically. According to the National Science Foundation, about one in 10 incoming freshman say they expect to major in engineering, but only half of them actually complete degrees in the field.


The reality is that many students who plan to major in STEM fields don't graduate with degrees in those fields. So why the focus on black students, and more specifically, why attribute the issue to affirmative action?

Betsy DiSalvo, a Ph.D. student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, faced exactly this question a few years ago, when she and her colleagues found themselves wondering why so many people — young black boys in particular — stopped studying in a field that they enjoyed. However, instead of fixing blame on a nebulous idea of how affirmative action operates, DiSalvo actually spoke to the students herself.


She found inspiration in an offhand comment by a discouraged black student, who pointed out that the classes were geared to the experience level of the most technically savvy in the room. He talked about playing basketball at 9 years old, not programming.

Instead of using the statement to forward bigoted ideas, DiSalvo designed a research study that looked at dropout rates, play practices among African-American males and whether adolescent interest in video games could realistically steer young black men toward computer science degrees. Her first research paper was published in 2008.


She now leads a pilot program called Glitch: Game Testers, which partners with Morehouse College, and will see if the teens she recruited to work as video game testers will stick with computer science in college. DiSalvo's research and discoveries would not have been possible if she had tried to shoehorn the data she received into a hypothesis, the way the Duke researchers did.

The conclusion to walk away with isn't as simple as "black students can't cut it with STEM" or "Duke University spends its time on racist science." When we hear of a new scientific study, it is imperative that we interrogate the data that comes in about our communities before accepting the ideas as factual.


There are major problems with STEM-field retention, but these kinds of studies are actually damaging because they seek to advance a narrative, rather than explore cause and effect. As a community, we need to ask what the assumptions are that researchers place upon the data set and how this data fits into conclusions drawn from other studies around similar subjects.

It is important to solve pertinent problems like the achievement gap or the STEM completion rate. And it is important to confront the hard road ahead. But we cannot allow bias to masquerade as fact. The next generations deserve better.


Latoya Peterson is the editor of and a contributing editor to The Root

Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist, anti-racist activist and deputy editor of Fusion’s Voices section, opining on pop culture, news, video games and everything that makes life worth living. 

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