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Last night I posted an introduction to the Center for Equal Opportunity’s report on the use of race in assessing applicants to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and attempted to untangle their preposterously misleading claim that black students have a 576-to-1 advantage in admissions. This morning I’ll be tackling CEO’s claims as to the rates at which student applicants of various racial groups are admitted to UW.

The CEO study’s author, Althea Nagai, claims on the report’s first page that in 2007 and 2008 “UW admitted more than 7 out of every 10 black applicants, and more than 8 out of 10 Hispanics, versus roughly 6 in 10 Asians and whites.” The university’s own public records for those years, however, show admissions rates of just 42% and 55% for black and Latino students, respectively, compared to a 55% rate of acceptance for white applicants and a 56% rate for Asians. According to UW, in other words, white, Asian, and Latino students were accepted at almost exactly the same rates in the period covered by the CEO report, while black students’ admission rates were considerably lower.

The CEO report does not attempt to explain this dramatic discrepancy. It does, however, provide a hint in a footnote, when it gives its raw numbers for total UW applicants and admissions in 2007 and 2008. By CEO’s reckoning, there were 38,476 applicants and 23,769 admittees to UW in those two years, while according to the university, 50,348 students applied for admission in 2007-08, of whom 27,415 were admitted.

CEO’s data set, in other words, is missing some 11,872 students, of whom only 3,646 were admitted. Nearly twelve thousand students — almost a quarter of the total applicant pool — were left out of CEO’s calculations. Why?

To start with, CEO’s sample set excludes “those cases for which race or ethnicity is listed as ‘Other,’ missing, or unknown,” as well as Southeast Asians and “American Indians and Native Hawaiians.” (A more appropriate approach would have been to combine these students into their own category, in order to preserve the integrity of the study’s data set, but we’ll let that pass.)

Aggregating UW’s figures for white, black, Latino, and “Other Asian” applicants for 2007 gives a total of 21,443, of whom 12,261 were admitted. CEO’s sample consists of 19,345 applicants, of whom 12,219 were admitted. That’s a further omission of 2,433 applicants, of whom 42 were admitted.

CEO doesn’t provide a breakdown by race of the data pool it used, so it’s impossible to say with absolute precision what numbers they used. But it is possible to reverse-engineer their dataset by applying the percentage totals they arrived at for each race to the aggregate numbers they provided. When you do that, this is what you get:

Of 854 black applicants, CEO’s sample included approximately 503. Of 769 Latino applicants, they included approximately 600. Of 2,038 non-Southeast Asians, they included approximately 1,528. And of 18,117 whites, they included approximately 16,714.

What does this mean? It means that about 10% of UW applicants who fit CEO’s racial parameters were left out of their study’s sample, with those exclusions coming disproportionately from student of color applicant pools. Only 8% of white applicants were left out of the CEO report, as compared to 10% of non-Southeast Asians, 22% of Latinos, and a staggering 41% of blacks.

So who were these students who were excluded from the sample?

CEO says that “cases with missing academic data were dropped from the statistical analyses,” as were applicants whose inclusion “might lead to the identification of an individual.” It’s clear that most of the applicants excluded from the CEO pool were students who were not admitted to UW, presumably because they submitted incomplete or otherwise unsatisfactory applications. But whatever the reasons for their rejections, they did apply, and CEO has simply erased them from the record as if they never existed.

Another erasure is the exclusion of Southeast Asians from the category “Asians,” noted above. Nearly a dozen times in the first page of the report, CEO compares statistics for Asians with those of other racial groups without noting once that their definition of “Asian” excludes more than fifteen percent of Asian applicants and admittees to the university. (CEO mentions the distinction between Southeast Asians and other Asians only twice in the report — both times in discussions of retention rates.)

CEO claims, as noted earlier, that UW’s admissions rates for black and Latino students are dramatically higher than those for whites and Asians. That claim rests on the exclusion of more than two thousand students of color from their applicant sample, an exclusion with major implications for CEO’s analysis.

Earlier this week a group called the Center for Equal Opportunity released a 21-page analysis of undergraduate admissions data from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, charging what they call “severe discrimination based on race and ethnicity.” Wisconsin students protested at a press conference announcing the findings, while one Republican state legislator is calling for a formal investigation of the university’s selection process.

Wisconsin is already a political tinderbox, of course, and this is likely to add fuel to the fire. It’s legal under binding Supreme Court precedent to consider race as a factor in college admissions, but CEO claims that UW has gone way overboard, admitting manifestly unqualified black and Latino students ahead of more-deserving whites.

I’ve spent a good chunk of the last two days examining the CEO study, and I’ve found that it’s riddled with serious flaws. UW admissions data don’t show what CEO’s report says they do, and the group’s most dramatic claims are its most poorly sourced. CEO is, to put it plainly, misrepresenting the Wisconsin admissions process in multiple serious ways.

At the top of both the CEO study of UW admissions and their press release touting it, the group makes a breathtaking claim about black and Latino students’ chances of admission to Wisconsin’s flagship campus. “The odds ratio favoring African Americans and Hispanics over whites” in UW Madison undergraduate admissions, they say, “was 576-to-1 and 504-to-1, respectively, using the SAT and class rank while controlling for other factors.”

576-to-1. Wow. Those are some pretty steep odds. But what does the claim actually mean?

Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean that the average black applicant to the University of Wisconsin has 576 times the chance of getting in than the average white applicant. Using CEO’s own numbers, the actual figure is about 1.2-to-1. (And as we’ll see in my next post, those numbers are highly problematic — UW’s own publicly available statistics show that black applicants actually have a significantly lower admission rate than whites.)

It also doesn’t mean that a black or Latino applicant to the University of Wisconsin with grades and test scores similar to the average UW applicant has a chance 576 or 504 times greater of winning admission than a white applicant with identical test scores.

The truth is that the CEO report doesn’t ever actually say what they intend to suggest by the 576/504 figures. The statistics’ meaning, they say, “may be difficult to grasp.” The pertinent equations, they say, “are complex and hard to explain.”

So if the meaning of an odds ratio is so obscure, why use it? Why make it the centerpiece of your media campaign?

It’s a good question. And it has a simple answer:

Because any more sensible way of constructing the question wouldn’t make UW’s black and Latino students look stupid.

The odds ratio is an arcane and obscure statistical concept. (I myself misstated it in the first version of this post, as a glance at the early comments shows.) Put as simply as possible, if P is the likelihood of one thing happening and Q is the likelihood of another thing happening, then P/Q is the way most of us would express the ratio of one thing happening versus the other. If P is 95% likely, and Q is 85% likely, then P/Q is 1.12, meaning that P is 1.12 times as likely to happen as Q. That’s what most of us think of when we think of odds, and it’s what most of us think of when we think of an odds ratio.

But it’s not what the term “odds ratio” means to a statistician.

To a statistician, the odds ratio of P to Q is represented by the following equation:


To put that in slightly plainer English, the odds ratio of P to Q is P multiplied by 1 minus Q divided by Q multiplied by 1 minus P. I am told that this is a useful concept for statisticians.

But however useful it may be for statisticians, it’s not useful for us laypeople, because it means something wholly different from what we expect it to mean. Let’s see what happens when we plug the numbers from my original example into this new formula.

(.95*.15)/(.85*.05) = 3.35

So the chances of P happening are 1.12 times greater than the chances of Q happening, but the odds ratio of P and Q is 3.35. And that gap isn’t consistent between samples — in some situations the two statistics are quite similar, while in others they’re very different. Change P to 99% while leaving Q at 85% and the relative chance of P inches up to 1.16 times the chance of Q while the odds ratio of P and Q soars to 17.47.

I want to underscore that. When P has a 99% chance of happening, and Q has an 85% chance of happening, the odds ratio of P to Q is 17.47. Obviously P isn’t seventeen times as likely to happen — P isn’t even anywhere near twice as likely to happen. (Twice as likely as 85% is 170%, and when you’re talking likelihoods, 170% is a meaningless concept.) So if I tell you that the odds ratio between P and Q is 17.47 to 1, and you’re not a statistician, you’re not going to be more informed than you were before. You’re going to be less informed. You’re going to be misinformed.

And that’s exactly what CEO is counting on.

Do a Google search for “odds ratio misleading” and you’ll find scholarly articles, journalists’ websites, statistical papers, all sorts of documents all saying the same thing — it’s scholarly malpractice to highlight odds ratios in materials intended for public consumption, because the risk of confusion is so high.

And it’s not only the public who gets confused. Look how Linda Chavez, the Chairman of CEO, summarized the group’s odds ratio findings in the Wisconsin Daily Cardinal this morning:

“The studies show that a black or Hispanic undergraduate applicant was more than 500 times likelier to be admitted to Wisconsin-Madison than a similarly qualified white or Asian applicant.”

See that? “More than 500 times likelier.” This isn’t true. It isn’t what CEO claims. An odds ratio is NOT an expression of the relative likelihood of two events. But here’s the head of CEO pretending otherwise in the student newspaper of the very university under discussion.

The California State Senate has passed a bill expanding financial aid to undocumented students in the state’s public colleges and universities. The California Dream Act now goes to the Democratic-controlled State Assembly, which is expected to pass it next week. Governor Jerry Brown has not said whether he will sign the bill, but he approved similar legislation this summer and is considered likely to do so again.

Undocumented students make up about one percent of enrollment at California’s public colleges and universities, a rate of attendance far below undocumented immigrants’ representation in the state’s population (in the range of two or three million out of a total of thirty-seven million).

Charlie Webster, the state chair of the Maine Republican party, has produced documents claiming to show that over two hundred of the state’s college students have committed fraud by voting in Maine while paying out-of-state tuition.

This is a lie. It’s an evil lie. It’s just … jeez.

Here’s the deal. If you move to Maine for college, you have to pay out-of-state tution your first year. And your second. And your third. And your fourth. And your fifth. You have to pay out-of-state tuition forever, in fact, until you demonstrate that you have “established a Maine domicile for other than educational purposes.”

And as long as you’re attending college full-time, you’ll be “presumed to be in Maine for educational purposes and not to establish a domicile.” Again: Forever.

You can arrive in Maine fresh out of high school, move into your own place, live there 365 days a year. Work there, spend summers there, get married there. Finish your undergraduate degree, go on to grad school. But as long as you’re still a student, you’re “presumed to be in Maine for educational purposes and not to establish a domicile,” and the burden of proof is on you to show otherwise. (“No one factor can be used to establish domicile,” by the way. “All factors and circumstances must be considered on a case-by-case basis.”)

Paying out-of-state tuition isn’t evidence that you don’t live in Maine, in other words. It’s not evidence of anything at all. Out-of-state tuition is a revenue stream for the university and the state, and as such, it’s designed to put every possible burden on the student who’s looking to get out from under it.

Which brings us back to Charlie Webster.

What Webster is doing here is deploying a state regulation designed to deprive Maine’s college students of their money as a mechanism to deprive them of their votes. There’s no other way to describe it. Take their money, take their votes. Justice, fairness, and the Supreme Court of the United States be damned.

It’s really that simple.

Jesse Cheng announced on Monday that he would be stepping down as Student Regent of the University of California system. The announcement came just days before the final Regents meeting of his term.

The student conduct office at UC Irvine, Cheng’s home campus, ruled in March that Cheng had sexually assaulted a former girlfriend the previous fall. He appealed the finding, stepping down only after his appeal was rejected. (Cheng had admitted to sexual assault in an email to the woman, but later claimed that the confession was false, and written under pressure from his accuser. He was arrested in connection with the incident a few weeks after it allegedly occurred, but released without charges.)

In an era in which the University of California has pursued student activists with the aggressive use of both criminal and campus judicial sanctions, the mild treatment of Cheng — who, though he now denies any wrongdoing, both admitted to and was found guilty of sexual assault — stands out. In particular, it contrasts dramatically with how the university and local prosecutors have treated the “Irvine 11,” a group of students who are currently facing trial for allegedly disrupting a campus speech by the Israeli ambassador to the US.

I’ll admit that I’m ambivalent about the charges against Jesse Cheng. I know Jesse, and I’d like to believe that he’s not capable of what he’s been accused of. But whatever my personal thoughts on his case, the fact is that he was found by a student conduct board to have committed a sexual assault, and given his confession, it’s difficult to argue that the board’s conclusion was egregiously in error.

That Cheng received probation, and was allowed to keep his seat on the UC Regents until he himself chose to give it up, while the Irvine 11 saw the student organization to which they belong suspended and now each face the possibility of six months in jail? That’s not right. That’s not proportionate. That’s not legitimate.

And that disproportion, that illegitimacy, casts the whole University of California judicial system, as well as the UC’s relationship with law enforcement, into question.

Update | Read this post from Reclaim UC for more on the university’s recent history of bungling sexual assault charges. Seriously. Go read it.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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