College Admissions: The One Statistic That Counts

Most middle-class parents know every vital statistic: the percentage of students who go on to professional school, the median income of the graduating senior, the attrition rate of students who can't hack it and drop out. Minority parents with lower incomes, on the other hand, have few statistics at their command. Some of them don't even know what a statistic is.

I know. As a college professor, I've stood before a crowd in my Sunday best, answering very pointed questions during many a recruitment session. But rarely do I see a low-income minority parent at these events. Indeed, never has a minority parent done more than shake my hand when they deliver their virgin child to the volcano that is the first day of school. None has ever asked me a question.

I wish they did.

If there is one statistic that these parents should figure out, it is the retention rate of faculty of color. How many faculty of color are recruited? How many stay? How many are promoted? These are crucial questions if you want your minority child to not only survive, but thrive in an academic environment. Studies have shown that there exists a direct correlation between a healthy, diverse faculty and the well-being of minority student populations.

This is a long way of saying this: if your school cannot boast a diverse faculty, your child will have a miserable time. If your school only has a few token faculty, than guess what? Your child will also be treated like a token. They will be treated like freaks, like outcasts. Their ideas will be discounted in the classroom and their legitimacy as producers of knowledge will be left to wither and die -- raisins in the sun.

Of course, this is not always the case. Some places with dismal records on faculty diversity will argue that they have created many a successful student. But I would point out, quite often, these students emerge like ants from a campfire: maimed, hurt, blind. Most often, the successful minority is a statistical outlier.

Here is a case in point: one of my dear friends is counted as a success story who really made a mark at her undergraduate institution. This person not only became a stellar student, but she also was voted Student Body President. She went on to a top professional program and distinguished herself as a major player in her chosen field of study -- a trailblazer in every sense of the word. She's the kind of person who shows up to national conferences and gets mobbed by admirers, the kind of person who gives TED Talks and wins prizes and accolades and honorariums.

But when she tried to organize a reunion of fellow minority students at her undergraduate institution, she intimated to me this sad fact: none of them wanted to return to their alma mater. "I never want to go back to that place." Her classmates had achieved an education, but at deep psychological costs, and they refused to revisit the primal scene of a profound hurt.

My friend did not fault them. She knew she had been lucky -- that her story was extraordinary, not at all common. Their's, on the other hand, was par for the course.

Fall is upon us and soon students will be sending out applications to many institutions of higher learning across the country -- places with strange names in outlandish locations. The choice to leave family and home, to risk money and mental health is one that is fraught with many more consequences than most students comprehend. There is a narrow segment of the minority student population- - the best and the brightest -- who find themselves in a peculiar position. It is a power position that will allow them to leverage their intellectual attainments and catapult them into a world of possibilities. But most find themselves ill-equipped to make informed decisions. None know yet how to ask the questions that matter.

Perhaps I am talking into the wind. The students that I hope to reach out to in this venue are not necessarily students who will read this. The students I hope to reach have over-worked parents who will in all probability cannot spare the time to read this. Many of these students don't have access to computers. Many of these parents might not even read English.

But I am hoping that those who do have the access and privilege to read this -- those middle-class, NPR-listening parents who might know of a boy or a girl who might make this crucial step this Fall -- can convey this one, simple message: check the statistic on the retention of minority faculty; for a minority, it is the primary indicator of happiness and success, wealth and well-being.