Volume 2  Number 7
July 2000

    Thousands of  blacks in the US have IQ scores above 130, many more above 120. A war is raging over who will hire them and who will educate them. In the corporate board room where the bottom line rules and fear of litigation lurks around every corner, the need to diversify is overriding. It is a cost of doing business. But nowhere is diversity more alive than on the college campus. University faculty are true believers. Diversity on campus is like God at a revival meeting. Academics recruit minorities with the passion of evangelists, but diversity does not come easy. Industry and universities face the same obstacle: the appalling lack of minority talent. In this essay we examine how one university deals with this issue.

The African American Talent Pool
   Recruiting talented black students is limited by a simple statistical fact: There are not enough to go around. There are almost 600,000 black youngsters of high-school-senior age. Not all are college material. Most people would agree that a person with an IQ of 100 or less is not college material, and that another with an IQ of 120 is. Somewhere between is an IQ boundary, fuzzy perhaps, that separates those who can from those who can't. An IQ of 110 is frequently cited as a minimum requirement for a bona fide bachelor's degree. We use this threshold here.

The distribution of IQ can tell us lots about the quality of university degrees. Approximately 43 percent of white females now earn a bachelor's degree. This can only be so if there are degree holders with IQs as low as 103, and this is merely an upper bound. Bachelor's degrees are almost certainly awarded to many with lower IQs. In 1997, according to Scientific American, 18 percent of 22-year-old blacks earned bachelor's degrees. From this we can infer that degrees are awarded to people with IQs of 98. Again, this being an upper bound, we can be sure that many with IQs below 98 earn bachelor's degrees every year.

The distribution of IQ among African Americans peaks at about 85 with a standard deviation (SD) variously reported between 11 and 14. Using the average, 12.5, puts the college-ready IQ threshold 2 SD out from the African American mean. About 2.3 percent of blacks with the cognitive capital to earn a good degree reach this threshold. In any given year, about 13,500 African American 18-year-olds qualify. Thousands of colleges compete for them. If we divide the 13,500 African American youngsters equally among American colleges, each campus would get at most a handful.

From the viewpoint of the meritocrat, colleges and universities face another kind of problem. There are roughly 2,600,000 non-Hispanic whites in the high school senior age cohort. With a mean IQ of 100 and a standard deviation of 15, they contribute about 650,000 to the pool of whites who meet the 110 IQ threshold. For every college-eligible black there are almost 50 eligible non-Hispanic whites. When we include Hispanics and Asians, both of whom exceed blacks cognitively, African Americans make up less than 2 percent of the college-ready pool.

Selective colleges have the hapless task of recruiting minorities with credentials matching their white and Asian students. In fact, it is an impossible task. There are, for example, only about 1500 blacks in the age cohort with IQs of 120 or more. Though a reasonable minimum for a professional, 120 is low for an Ivy Leaguer. About 237,000 non-Hispanic whites in the age cohort meet this minimal requirement for an elite school. For each 18-year-old black with an IQ of at least 120, there are more than 150 non-Hispanic whites who reach this score. In an open competition, the minority population of the Ivy League would be less than 1 percent.


A Program for Elite Blacks
    A June 5 editorial in the New York Times called our attention to a college program for high-ability black students. These students are recipients of the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Scholarship. Conceived by the Baltimore philanthropists whose name it bears, the Scholarship's goal is to train African American scientists. According to the Times, the program has been a brilliant success.

We approached the Times article cautiously. We have, after all, become used to undeserved praise. Head Start comes first to mind. From its beginnings, this multi-billion dollar program has enjoyed continued support from the press despite all evidence that it produces no lasting educational benefit. The Times writer, Brent Staples, added to our misgivings by rehashing badly worn excuses for black academic failure. He blamed the generally disappointing academic performance of African Americans on their fear that white professors do not respect them intellectually, and on anxiety caused by feelings of being judged by race rather than ability. This aside, the editorial did contain some compelling numbers. In the first seven years of the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program, 84 percent of its students went on to pursue Ph.D.s or medical degrees. Recent Meyerhoff classes boost that number to 95 percent. Impressive by any measure, we decided to take a hard look.

The home of the Meyerhoff Scholarship is the Baltimore County campus of the University of Maryland (UMBC). It is a medium size Carnegie Doctoral II university. To learn about the Scholarship, we went to the UMBC website and spoke to some faculty. We discovered that the Scholarship was created in 1988 with a $522,000 grant from the Meyerhoffs. Its original intent was to increase the ranks of African American men in the natural sciences and engineering. A year later women became eligible.

In 1989, as the first Meyerhoff students were arriving on campus, a legal battle was brewing thirty miles down the road at College Park. Its outcome was to influence race-based scholarships everywhere. The College Park campus of the University had been running a scholarship program known as the Banneker. Only blacks were eligible. The Banneker's legality was challenged by a Hispanic student with the improbable surname Podberesky. He was ineligible to apply because he was not African American. However, he had graduated from high school with a 3.56 grade point average and scored 1340 on the SAT. His credentials were head and shoulders above those of the standard Banneker applicant. Podberesky thought he deserved a Banneker Scholarship. A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. It ruled the Banneker Program unconstitutional on the grounds that it was race-specific. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the University's appeal, and the Banneker Scholarship was forced to broaden its ranks and accept nonblack applicants. The Meyerhoff Scholarship, also exclusively for blacks, was similarly affected by the ruling. It opened its doors to nonblacks. Today, about 75 percent of Meyerhoff Scholars are African American. The Program is mostly local with about ninety percent of its students coming from Maryland.

No other program in the country comes even close . . .

The Scholars
    The Meyerhoff Program enrolls about 40 black students a year. They have at least a "B" high-school average and a minimum math SAT of 600. Typically, Meyerhoff Scholars exceed these requirements. Promotional material advertises that the fall 1997 Meyerhoff freshmen averaged 1285 on the combined math and verbal SAT. We can gain perspective by looking at how African Americans perform nationally. In 1997, the national mean for blacks on the combined SAT was 857 with a standard deviation of 198. Thus, Meyerhoff Scholars were separated from black SAT takers at large by a whopping 2.2 SD. In fact, the Meyerhoffs and their college-bound black cohorts across the country barely overlap. The Scholars stack up well against white students too. In 1997, whites averaged 1052 on the combined SAT with a standard deviation of 206. In that year, Meyerhoff Scholars averaged 1.2 SD higher than college-bound whites.

By white or Asian standards Meyerhoff Scholars do not form an elite group. A combined SAT of 1285 will not get a white or Asian into the Ivy League. The top end of the Meyerhoffs are, however, impressively formidable. All this aside, Meyerhoff graduates fulfill the goals of their benefactors. They go on to graduate and professional schools, studying in the sciences, medicine, mathematics, computer science and engineering. No other program in the country comes even close in this respect.


The Program
   Robert and Jane Meyerhoff set up an outstanding package: four years with full tuition and fees, room and board, plus an annual $1000 stipend to cover expenses like books. The Scholars also participate in a fully-paid ten-week summer research internship. Funds for extra curricular travel also are available. In return, the Scholars must major in one of the natural sciences, mathematics, computer science or engineering, and plan to pursue the Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. in a technical field.

Before the Meyerhoff students begin their first semester, a strategy of systematic spoon feeding begins. It continues until they graduate. The summer preceding their first semester, Meyerhoffs attend a six-week "Bridge Program." There the students, all with at least a 600 math SAT, take noncredit (i.e., remedial) courses in chemistry and physics. They also take courses in study skills and time management. Depending on a placement exam score, the fledgling Meyerhoffs take courses for credit in either pre-calculus or calculus. Finally, they take a course in African-American studies.

Meyerhoff Scholars live together during the Summer Bridge Program, a practice that continues throughout their freshman year. According to the Program description, ". . . students begin to get to know each other and establish strong bonds, creating a valuable support system." If there is one thing that separates the Meyerhoff Scholarship from all others, it is this support system. It virtually defines the program.

From the moment they show up until the time they graduate, Meyerhoff Scholars are treated like special people. For four years they will be coddled like a prized football team. The Meyerhoff staff will hold frequent group meetings with them, reinforcing Program values of striving for academic achievement, supporting one's peers, and preparing for graduate or professional school. Also like footballers, these elite students will have personal tutors. They will live together, take classes together, study together. Each will be assigned a mentor recruited from among area professionals in science, engineering and math. They will be constantly reminded that they are special. The Scholars will be immersed in the research culture early on -- a valuable prelude to a research career. They will work in faculty research labs, and have expense-paid summer opportunities to work in quality laboratories off campus, including those of Nobel laureates.

A sizable staff, employed by the Program, closely monitors each Scholar's progress toward the degree. Unofficially, grades less than "B" are unacceptable. When a Meyerhoff student get less than a "B," he retakes the course. Only the higher grade goes into his GPA. The system virtually ensures the success of the student. He simply is not allowed to be average.

The Guiding Hand
   Robert and Jane Meyerhoff may have conceived the scholarship program that bears their name, but the person responsible for its success is Freeman Hrabowski. Hrabowski, now president of the University, designed the system of support and mentoring that characterizes the program. He has recruited actively not only Meyerhoff Scholars but also other black students. Fifteen percent of the undergraduates at UMBC are African American. Academically, they are indistinguishable from the other students. Hrabowski accomplished this by aggressive recruiting. According to faculty members, Hrabowski is a super salesman who delivers a first-rate product.

On the UMBC website Hrabowski reports the result of an experiment he performed to test the efficacy of the Meyerhoff system. In a study to be published with K. I. Maton, Hrabowski describes the experiment. It compares freshman-year outcomes of African American Meyerhoff students with matched African American non-Meyerhoff students. The matching characteristics are shown in Table 1.

Meyerhoff students
(N = 34)
Matched Group
(N = 34)
SAT-Math 617.1 (44.3) 613.8 (48.4)
SAT-Verbal 540.6 (49.5) 539.6 (67.8)
High school GPA 3.46 (0.30) 3.43 (0.33)
Percent female 55.9% 55.9%
Freshman science/math credits 20.0 (4.8) 16.7 (6.1)

Table 1. Background characteristic means (and standard deviations) for Meyerhoff and comparison students

Freshman-year outcomes are shown in Table 2.

Meyerhoff students Matched Group
Overall GPA 3.4 2.8
Science GPA 3.4 2.5
Nonscience GPA 3.5 3.2
Calculus and analytic geometry 3.5 2.2
Chemistry 3.4 2.8
Engineering science 3.5 3.1
Biology 3.1 3.1

Table 2. Freshman-year outcomes for Meyerhoff and comparison students

The Meyerhoff Scholars performed impressively better than the control group in overall GPA, science GPA, math, and chemistry. They outdid the comparison group also in nonscience GPA and engineering science. The biology GPAs were equal. The evidence is conclusive: If you admit freshmen and support them with full scholarships, house them together, encourage them to form study groups, provide them with mentors and tutors, meet with them regularly to stress the importance of academic achievement, monitor their progress closely, involve them in research, take away their scholarships if they fail to make a "B" average, they will perform better than students deprived of these benefits.

The success of the Meyerhoff Program has enabled it to attract major funding. Contributors include: the Abell Foundation, Apple Computer Inc., AT&T, Baltimore Gas & Electric Company, Chevron USA Inc., DuPont, the Eli Lilly Foundation, the General Electric Foundation, W.R. Grace, the Hearst Foundation, IBM, Meridian Health Care Inc., NASA, the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, the National Institutes of Health, the National Security Agency, the National Science Foundation, Pfizer Inc., the Sloan Foundation, Sony, UNCF/Merck and the U.S. Department of Energy. But money does not sell a program to students.

. . . more than one black Ivy Leaguer has become disillusioned and dropped out to opt for a less elite environment.

Put yourself in the shoes of a talented black high school senior. You have a 700 math SAT and plan to major in physics. You have been admitted to Cornell, Princeton and Yale with full financial support, but you forego all your offers for a Meyerhoff award. Why?

Suppose you opt for the Ivy League. There you will be just another face in the crowd. Your 700 math SAT, in fact, will be sub par for your major. Because standardized tests like the SAT tend to overpredict performance for blacks, you may well find yourself near the bottom of your class. No one will spoon feed you, provide you with a private tutor and personal mentor. No one will guarantee you a quality research experience. No one will monitor your progress, propping you up when you falter. You are aware that more than one black Ivy Leaguer has become disillusioned and dropped out to opt for a less elite environment.

Still, it is a pretty hard sell for Hrabowski to lure a person away from the Ivy League with all its Nobel laureate mystique to a relatively unknown campus without even a National Academy member. Nevertheless, Hrabowski does it. And he is not selling snake oil. Hrabowski has developed a nurturing system that manages to send 95 percent of its graduates to graduate and professional schools in the sciences, mathematics, engineering and medicine. It is too early to tell what kind of contributions Meyerhoff Scholars will make. The first Meyerhoffs graduated in 1993. At best, we could expect them to be just now establishing independent research programs. The next decade will reveal much about the long-range effects of the Program.

   Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, wants the Meyerhoff Program to be replicated all over the United States. The Baltimore Sun calls for the predominately black Morgan State University, located in Baltimore, to clone the Meyerhoff Program. In a June 25 editorial, the Sun wrote, "[Morgan] needs . . . programs comparable to UMBC's nationally acclaimed Meyerhoff Scholars . . ." Cloning the Meyerhoff Program with Maryland Scholars, however, will be next to impossible. The supply of local black talent is too small.

The top half of the Meyerhoff SAT distribution begins 2.2 SD to the right of the national black mean. That puts this half in the upper 1.4 percent of black SAT takers. We do not know how far down the ability curve the Meyerhoff Program dips to recruit its 40 or so Maryland blacks each year, but assuming symmetry in their SAT distribution, we estimate that the lowest scoring Scholars have combined SATs of about 1150. These tail-enders still rank in the top 7 percent of black SAT test takers. And because only 20 percent of eligible blacks take SATs, the top half of the Meyerhoffs actually represents 0.3 percent of the black age cohort, the entire group about 1.4 percent.

Hrabowski showcases the top half of the Meyerhoff class. This is the half that gives the program credibility, that allows it to stand up to critical analysis. It is the all-important half, the half that can produce a 1999 valedictorian like Meyerhoff Scholar, Ryan Turner. Of the 19,000 African American 18-year-olds in Maryland, fewer than 60 could make the top half of a current Meyerhoff class. Incredibly, the program attracts about 1/3 of them. People interested in investing in young black talent could do worse than to look to Maryland for inspiration. Oddly enough, Brent Staples of the New York Times and La Griffe du Lion reached the same conclusion by vastly different routes.


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