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In this issue's Alumni section:
Books: Affirmative Admissions - Open Book: Fragments of a Family Saga - Open Book: Tyranny on Campus - Music: Looking at Lenny - Off the Shelf - Chapter & Verse

The Third World Center Organization challenged Harvard's performance on affirmative action and diversity on Class Day 1980, shown here, and President Derek Bok spoke about minority admissions, tutoring, and faculty hiring in his Commencement-afternoon address. Photograph by Rick Stafford

Affirmative Admissions

Changing the terms of debate on affirmative action in higher education

by Daniel Steiner

In 1994 the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation had the wisdom and foresight to begin creating a unique database, called College and Beyond, that is likely to play a significant role not only in the national debate and litigation over affirmative action in higher education, but also in broader assessments of the admissions and educational policies and practices of selective colleges and universities. Using written questionnaires, telephone interviews, and data obtained from colleges, universities, and the College Entrance Examination Board and other sources, College and Beyond now contains longitudinal data on students who matriculated in 1951, 1976, and 1989 at 28 selective colleges and universities.

The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, by William G. Bowen, LL.D. '73, and Derek Bok, J.D.'54, LL.D.'92 (Princeton University Press, $24.95).

Now ready and begging for analysis are hundreds of thousands of pieces of information on such matters as students' test scores and grades and rank in class in secondary school; academic performance, extracurricular activities, and social interactions in college; occupations, earnings, and civic activities; and assessments of their post-graduation lives, their undergraduate education, and the diversity objectives of their institutions. The institutions in the study include liberal-arts colleges such as Swarthmore, Williams, Bryn Mawr, and Oberlin; private research universities such as Stanford, Rice, Yale, and Princeton; and four public research universities--Michigan, Washington, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania State. Harvard was not a participant.

It is fitting and timely that Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, and William G. Bowen, president of the Mellon Foundation and former president of Princeton, have made the first major use of this database to write The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Their title comes from a Mark Twain metaphor. Bok and Bowen state that the journey from college admissions through career and family life is akin to moving down a long, winding river with many varied conditions. The traditional metaphor of the "pipeline," on the other hand, gives a false impression of a smooth, well-defined passage through these stages of life.

For many years, Bok's and Bowen's voices have been important in sustaining race consciousness in admissions--taking race into account as a "plus factor"--in their own and other institutions, and their book represents an honest effort to look at the consequences of what they have advocated. The two authors, who analyze data pertaining to 45,000 students who matriculated at the 28 colleges and universities in 1976 and 1989, bring to the study considerable experience and professional expertise, and they have enlisted the help of well-qualified staff members at the foundation and of other economists and political scientists.

The book, which focuses on black students and graduates, is timely because the passionate national debate over race consciousness in college and university admissions continues unabated. More significantly, within the next few years the Supreme Court may again rule, as it did in 1978 in the Bakke case, on whether such a policy is constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and legal under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Although of great importance to higher education and the nation, the admissions debate has lost vitality because it has become repetitive. It is rare today to read or hear a new argument, or even a fresh way of expressing an old one, and there has been very little empirical evidence to offer on either side of the debate. In the absence of probative evidence, anecdotes that should be used only to illustrate points have been used to prove them. Critics of current policies, for example, will cite racial incidents at a college or the existence of a table of black students in a dining hall to demonstrate that these policies serve no useful educational purpose and may in fact lead to less rather than more racial understanding. The Supreme Court, if it decides to rule again on this issue, would benefit from something more than elegantly restated arguments and anecdotes.

Bok and Bowen give two clear reasons for supporting race consciousness in admissions to selective schools. First, such a policy helps prepare qualified minority students for the many opportunities they will have to contribute to a society that is still trying to solve its racial problems within a population that will soon be one-third black and Hispanic. Second, the policy provides a racially diverse environment that can help prepare all students to live and work in our increasingly multiracial society. The Shape of the River gives us considerable data to show that the policy is achieving these objectives:

  • About 90 percent of all graduates of selective institutions who matriculated in 1976 are involved in one or more civic activities. Data show that black men are involved at an even higher rate, and that black men and women are more likely than their white classmates to hold a leadership position. Many black graduates credit their undergraduate experience with helping to develop an active interest in community service.

  • About 56 percent of white and black graduates who matriculated in 1976 went on to get advanced degrees, with blacks slightly more likely than whites to earn a professional degree in law, medicine, or business. Black graduates of these selective colleges were twice as likely as black graduates nationally to earn an advanced degree. Bok and Bowen state that these professionals "are the backbone of the emergent black...middle class.... [T]hey can serve as strong threads in a fabric that binds their own community together and binds those communities into the larger social fabric as well."

  • The black graduates from the 1976 cohort "have successfully converted 'capital' provided by academically selective schools into high-paying and satisfying careers--and at young ages." For example, black males with bachelor's degrees from selective schools who worked full-time earned an average of $85,000 in 1995, 84 percent more than black bachelor's-degree holders nationwide. However, black male graduates from selective institutions earned an average of $8,500 less than their comparable white classmates. After looking at a large number of possible explanations, Bok and Bowen "wonder whether even the black male students who graduated from selective...schools have found the fabled 'level playing field' that so many agree should be our nation's objective."

  • Even though blacks accounted for less than 10 percent of the student population, a majority of whites reported that they "knew well" two or more black students, and 88 percent of black students "knew well" two or more white students. About 50 percent of the white matriculants in 1976 and 1989 and 75 percent of the black matriculants thought it "very important" to learn to work well and get along with members of other races, and almost half of the 1976 white matriculants and 56 percent of the black matriculants thought that they had gained a lot in this respect from their college years. The numbers were significantly higher for both groups matriculating in 1989. A large majority of all the matriculants thought that their colleges should maintain or increase the emphasis on diversity.

    These and other data support the view that race-conscious admissions is working and should continue. The authors also look at what would happen if the policy were prohibited. They estimate that the percentage of blacks entering selective institutions in 1989 would have fallen from 7.1 percent to between about 2 percent and 3.5 percent, with the percentage in the most selective schools dropping from 7.9 percent to 2.1 percent. Current data from California and Texas, where public institutions are no longer allowed to take race into account, support these estimates. In effect, we would be going back to policies and enrollments of the early 1960s.

    Looking at the approximately 700 black matriculants in 1976 who would probably have been rejected under a race-blind standard, Bok and Bowen note that 225 of them went on to obtain professional degrees or doctorates, more than 300 are leaders of civic activities, and 65 percent were very satisfied with their undergraduate experience. The authors argue persuasively that use of a proxy for race, such as low socioeconomic status, would not do the trick. There are many more poor whites with high scores than blacks.

    Although many white applicants and their families may believe that they have been denied admission because of race-conscious policies, abandonment of these policies would increase the probability of admission for whites only from 25 percent to 26.5 percent because there are so many more white than black applicants. The authors cite an analogy used by Thomas J. Kane, M.P.P. '88, Ph.D. '91, associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School. If we see empty handicap parking spaces in the airport garage when we are desperately looking for a place to park, we may feel annoyance and believe that our problem would be solved if the places were not reserved. But elimination of those relatively few reserved spaces would increase our chances only infinitesimally. Similarly, only a fraction of those white applicants who think they have suffered would in fact gain admission absent affirmative action. The mistaken beliefs, however, do carry a social cost in resentment and perhaps in other ways.

    The Shape of the River rebuts a number of allegations made by critics of race-conscious admissions. Although the graduation rate of blacks at these selective institutions is lower than that of whites, it is high--above 75 percent--and improving, and almost twice as high as the national rate for blacks. The data do not support those who believe that blacks with lower scores than their classmates at the most selective schools would fit in better at less selective schools. Nor do the results of the study give grounds for believing that blacks feel stigmatized by race-conscious admissions. General Colin Powell, who saw an advance copy of the book, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I would tell black youngsters to graduate magna cum laude and get one of those well-paying jobs to pay for all the therapy they'll need to remove that stigma."

    The Shape of the River has two important limitations. First, although the authors have included some excerpts from interviews with subjects of the study, their work is overwhelmingly quantitative. There is a limit to what numbers can tell us, as there is a limit to how people can express themselves when asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 their satisfaction with their college education. Numbers do not reveal the texture of people's education, careers, or family life, nor do they help us identify and understand the nuances in experiences and relationships that influence an individual's development. It is unclear how much interview material exists in the Mellon Foundation database, but it would be interesting to read a presentation that takes a more descriptive and penetrating approach.

    Second, the book addresses only tangentially the effect of race-conscious admissions on the well-accepted view, as expressed in "Diversity and Learning," Neil L. Rudenstine's President's Report, 1993-1995, that "student diversity [is] valued for its capacity to contribute powerfully to the process of learning." How does the increase in the number of black students in selective institutions affect the education of students of all races? Because information in the database may be limited, and because "definition, measurement, and analysis are very difficult in this area," Bok and Bowen consider this issue only in a limited way. But the subject surely needs research, involving teachers as well as students. The educational benefits of racial diversity are often offered as a rationale for race-conscious admissions, and we would gain from a better understanding of the effect of racial diversity on the complexities and subtleties of the interaction between a student and his fellow students, teachers, and books. Others are doing research in this area, and we can only hope that the results of their work are as useful and persuasive as The Shape of the River.

    Given the richness of the data, the quality of analysis and argument, and the measured tone, The Shape of the River deserves to be influential in the debate and in litigation over race-conscious admissions. The authors command respect because of their professional qualifications, their extensive experience in higher education, and their record of thoughtful discourse about higher education and the needs of the nation. Although people may differ with some of the authors' conclusions, The Shape of the River adds important and much-needed empirical data to the discussion of this long controversial admissions policy. People can now state with confidence that such policies at selective colleges have led to important benefits to the black students admitted and to our society. Courts can take these societal benefits into account when assessing the constitutionality and legality of these admissions practices, and with the data this book provides courts are more likely to conclude that there are no race-neutral means of achieving the same goals. A fresher, more factual consideration of race consciousness in admissions can only help all of us as courts, legislatures, and voters reach decisions on such a vitally important topic.

    Daniel Steiner '54, LL.B. '58, was general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1967 to 1969. He served as general counsel of Harvard University beginning in 1970, and then as vice president and general counsel during the Bok administration, stepping down in 1992. From 1993-94 through 1996-97 he taught a course on affirmative action at the Kennedy School. He is president of the board of directors of Harvard Magazine Inc.

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