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Getting to Yes

THE SHAPE OF THE RIVER: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions;\o7 By William G. Bowen and Derek Bok; (Princeton University Press: 472 pp., $24.95)\f7

July 04, 1999|RICHARD FLACKS | Richard Flacks is professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara

Four years ago this month, the University of California Regents, led by Gov. Pete Wilson and Ward Connerly, voted to end affirmative action in UC admissions. One year later, California voters passed Proposition 209, abolishing state government affirmative action. These events seemed to mark the demise of affirmative action, yet the debate continues on campuses, in the courts and in the political arena. In "The Shape of the River," William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, and Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, provide us with a detailed report on the "long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions." Their findings call into question the assumptions about racial preference in higher education that have fueled the drive to end affirmative action nationally as well as in California.

Their book is based on a rather extraordinary database called "College and Beyond." The Mellon Foundation (Bowen is now its president) built this collection of information, drawn from more than 80,000 students who entered one of 28 selective colleges and universities (ranging from Yale to Chapel Hill) in 1951, 1976 and 1989. A wealth of data was accumulated: high school grades, SAT scores, grades and majors and activities in college, family class background and information about students' postgraduate lives (professional school attendance, career information, community service and their retrospective feelings about their college experience). Because the race of these students was known and because the data were collected at very different periods, the database made studying the effects of affirmative action possible.

In 1951, less than 1% of the students entering these schools were black. By 1989, blacks made up about 7% of the entering classes in these highly selective colleges. What would have happened had race not been a factor in admissions in the '70s and '80s? Bowen and Bok found that more than half of the blacks admitted would not have attended under a "color-blind" admissions policy, largely because few blacks score at the highest ranges of the SAT test. The researchers were thus able to examine the experiences of black students who were admitted to these schools with relatively low test scores. Opponents of affirmative action argue that such students are likely to fail or drop out. The study did find that black students' grade averages were below those of white students, and their dropout rates were higher. But the study also shows what happened to the more than 70% who did graduate.

There were about 700 black students who, in 1976, would have been rejected under a race-neutral policy; of these, 225 went on to graduate and professional schools, 130 became doctors or lawyers, 125 are business executives. Of the 700, at least 300 can be called community leaders, and the people in this group earn an average salary of more than $70,000.

In general, black graduates were at least as likely to go to graduate school as their white peers. Black women graduates were considerably more likely to work full-time than white women. White graduates earned appreciably more on average than blacks--but the average income of black graduates of these schools was substantially higher than national averages of either white or black college graduates. The study demonstrates that race-sensitive admissions policies enabled thousands of African Americans to enter the higher reaches of American institutional leadership during the last 25 years.

The study also demonstrates that these successful students were capable of making the grade once given the chance. The notion that black students with low test scores, but judged on other grounds to have high promise, would be better off and happier at less selective schools is contradicted by this study. One of the most surprising findings is that black students at the most selective schools had the most success in later life by all sorts of measures. Graduation rates for black students were higher at the most demanding schools. Contrary to those who predict that black students at elite schools are bound to be unhappy, graduates of such schools remember their experience favorably.

Affirmative action has served as a crucial means to increase the number of people of color in the upper middle class. These upwardly mobile graduates, moreover, have typically been engaged in community service as well as their own careers. Indeed, black graduates were much more likely than their white counterparts to "take on leadership positions in virtually every type of civic endeavor."

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