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Far Reaching Study Documents Success of Affirmative Action
Debra Humphreys, Director of Programs, AAC&U and Editor, Diversity Digest

"Would it be wise to reduce substantially the numbers of well-prepared Blacks and Latinos graduating from many of our leading colleges and professional schools?" Derek Bok and William Bowen, former presidents of Harvard and Princeton universities, clearly do not think so. And their scrupulously researched and documented study goes a long way toward injecting some wisdom and reason into the ongoing rancorous debates over affirmative action.

In their important book, The Shape of the River, they do not side-step the important questions of preparedness and fairness, but they ask the right questions about the purposes and impact of affirmative action policies. They document powerfully that these policies have achieved their purposes at the few schools in the country that have used race-sensitive admissions.

In a national context, it is important to note that affirmative action policies are used at only a small percentage of the nation's most selective colleges and universities. These authors make a persuasive case, however, that these policies provide significant benefits to the institutions that use them, the students who are admitted under them, and ultimately to our society as a whole. This data-rich study also documents what impact the elimination of these policies would have.

Bok and Bowen debunk a series of myths about affirmative action. They refute claims that affirmative action policies admit unqualified students; that they set students admitted under these policies up for failure; or that they significantly affect white applicants' chances of gaining admission to these selective institutions.

Bok and Bowen base their claims on an extensive study of "the college and later-life experiences of more than 35,000 students--almost 3,000 of whom were black--who had entered 28 selective colleges and universities in the fall of 1976 and the fall of 1989." Using a database developed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, they also link information such as SAT scores and college majors to post-college experiences including graduate and professional degree attainment, income, and degrees of civic involvement.

Benefits for African American Students

Bok and Bowen's study demonstrates conclusively that race-sensitive admissions policies have dramatic benefits for the African American students admitted under them. (The study focuses only "on African American and white students because the Latino [and Native American] population[s] at these schools w[ere] too small to permit the same sort of analysis.") Their data suggests that African American entering selective institutions have high (and increasing) rates of completion, though not yet as high as their white classmates. Seventy-five percent of African Americans attending these selective institutions in 1989 graduated from the schools they entered within six years. This rate was far higher then comparable graduation rates for all African American college students nationwide (40 percent) or all white students (59 percent). Non-academic factors (financial, social, etc.) are generally believed to account for the vast majority of student withdrawals.

After graduating from these institutions, large numbers of African American students also go on to earn advanced degrees, especially in the fields of law, business, and medicine. In fact, African American graduates were slightly more likely than whites from these schools to obtain these professional degrees, even though they had, on average, lower test scores and grades.

African American graduates from these institutions also have done extremely well in the job market. African American Bachelors of Arts who entered selective institutions in 1976 and worked full-time earned an average of $85,000 in 1995, 84 percent more than the average for all African American male B.A.'s nationwide. Black female B.A.'s from selective institutions earned an average of $65,000, 71 percent more than African American women B.A.'s nationwide.

African American students attending these institutions also have a high appreciation of their undergraduate experience and are more inclined than whites to feel that they benefitted from college in important respects. Ninety percent of African Americans who attended these institutions in 1976 report being very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their undergraduate experience, and levels of appreciation are even higher among 1989 students. The more selective the institution, the greater the satisfaction.

Benefits for Colleges and Universities

Again debunking a widely publicized myth, both African American and white students attending selective institutions report a great deal of social interaction between the races during college. As the authors put it, "…if there was self-segregation on these campuses--as there surely was in some instances and during 'some part of the day'--the walls between subgroups were highly porous."

There is also a strong and growing belief in the value of enrolling a diverse student body among students of all races at selective institutions. Concurring with what appears to be the general public's views (see National Poll Reveals Strong Public Support for Diversity in Higher Education), 42 percent of white 1976 students and 74 percent of their African American classmates considered it "very important" to learn to work well and get along with members of other races. These percentages increased to 55 percent and 76 percent for 1989 students. This suggests that colleges and universities are having more success in helping students benefit from diversity on campus. There was also exactly the same support for diversity expressed by white students who had been turned down by their first-choice school.

Benefits to American Society

Bok and Bowen also argue forcefully that race-sensitive admissions policies result in significant benefits for the larger society. Noting the large numbers of professional school degrees attained by African American students who attended these selective institutions, Bok and Bowen argue that,

The minority students with advanced degrees are the backbone of the emergent black and Hispanic middle class…Their influence extends well beyond the workplace, important as it is there. Successful black and Hispanic professionals serve as role models to nephews and nieces and are available to advise a neighbor or a family friend on medical, legal, or financial matters…they can serve as strong threads in a fabric that binds their own communities into the larger social fabric as well.

This study also demonstrates that African Americans who attended selective colleges are more active than their white classmates in civic activities, including community and social services endeavors, and political activities. Almost 90 percent of all African American graduates from selective institutions are engaged in one or more civic activity. African American men, in particular, are more likely than their white male classmates to be involved in such activities and are much more likely to hold leadership positions.

What if Race-Sensitive Admissions Were Eliminated?

Who would benefit and who would lose if race-sensitive admissions were eliminated? If race were given no consideration whatsoever in admitting students, the percentage of African American students at selective institutions would drop substantially, especially at the most selective institutions. By the author's calculations, the percentages of African Americans entering selective institutions in 1989 would have fallen from 7.1 percent to between 2 and 3.5 percent. In the most selective schools, the percentage of African Americans enrolled would have declined the most, from 7.9 percent to 2.1 percent. Because the numbers of white applications were so large, however, these dramatic declines in African American enrollments would have caused only a slight increase in the probability of admission for white applicants--from 25 to 26.5 percent.

Finally, Bok and Bowen's study also puts into context and perspective the gaps in SAT scores and GPAs and describes their relative importance in admissions decisions. One important, perhaps surprising statistic they cite has to do with average SAT scores. While the average SAT score of African Americans admitted under race-sensitive admissions was 1098, the authors predict that, without these policies, those African Americans admitted would have an average SAT score of about 1181.

Differences in admissions probabilities are, of course, primarily a reflection of persistent national differences between African American and white students in test scores. It is true that for most applicants the probability of being admitted to these selective institutions for African American students was roughly three times greater than the probability for whites with similar scores. However, because admissions officers take many factors into account in selecting students, even African Americans with exceptionally high scores often fail to gain admission; among African American students finishing in the top five percent of their high school class, only 57 percent were admitted to these schools.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Bok and Bowen prove that race sensitive admissions policies have achieved their goals. They have provided access to opportunity previously denied to African Americans and they have helped schools create learning environments that prepare all students to live and work together effectively. Minority communities and the larger society will lose a great deal if race-sensitive admissions policies are eliminated, the book suggests.

Join colleagues from around the country for an on-going, on-line conversation about the implications of the data and analysis presented in The Shape of the River. Visit DiversityWeb. Click on "Work Rooms."

Sources: William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, "Get In, Get Ahead: Here's Why," New York Times, September 20, 1998: C1, 4; William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998).

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