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What Senator Cowan Can Tell Us About Admissions Preferences and STEM

Recently we reported on a study of students at Duke University showing that minority students admitted to competitive colleges with large admissions preferences transfer out of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields much more often than do white students, who generally don’t receive such large preferences.  The authors show that large preferences place the minority students, who generally have academic preparation inferior to their white classmates, at the bottom of the admitted class. This, in turn, puts them at a disadvantage when competing in STEM courses, usually the most demanding that colleges offer. Students of all races who earn STEM degrees overwhelmingly enter college with credentials that place them in the top or high middle of their classes.

The Duke study, we noted, offers support for the book Mismatch by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., which we also reported on. The book shows that minority students who attend colleges where they are in the middle or the top of the admitted class are far likelier to study STEM subjects than those who receive preferences at elite schools. Admissions preferences, the authors argue, perversely contribute to low minority representation in STEM fields.

Now, surprisingly, comes further confirmation from a Duke alumnus suddenly in the news, the newly appointed interim U.S. senator from Massacusetts and prominent Boston attorney William Cowan. 

Like many other African-American students, Cowan entered Duke planning
to study STEM, specifically to become a doctor, he told the Boston Globe in 2010.  ” ‘Then I took freshman chemistry at Duke,’ he said, laughing,” the Globe continues.  He majored in sociology, and then took his law degree at Northeastern University in Boston.

only surmising that Cowan received an admission preference at Duke, but
the circumstances of his early years suggest that his academic
preparation did not match that of most students admitted to the South’s
most elite university.  Growing up in a working class African-American
family in a small, highly segregated, town in rural North Carolina, he
was the first graduate of his high school ever to attend Duke. 

Sen. Cowan is a very able and accomplished man. He is now entering a
particularly distinguished phase of his career.  But one can’t help
wondering what his accomplishments might have been had he gotten a fair
chance to apply them to STEM.