Book Cites Benefits of Race-Based College Admissions

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The affirmative action policies used by some of the nation's most elite colleges in the 1970s and '80s did their job, brightening the futures of minority students and teaching white students to value racial diversity, a new study of 45,000 college graduates suggests.

The study, written by two former presidents of Ivy League universities, William G. Bowen of Princeton and Derek Bok of Harvard, provides some of the first statistical evidence challenging the recent backlash against the use of race-conscious admissions in higher education.

For More Information

Copies of the American Association for the Advancement of Science report, "Losing Ground: Science and Engineering Graduate Education of Black and Hispanic Americans," are available from EHR Publications at the AAAS: (202) 326-6670; fax: (202) 371-9849; e-mail: [email protected]

It was released last week in a book called The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, from Princeton University Press.

During their tenures as university presidents, Mr. Bok and Mr. Bowen both employed race-sensitive admissions practices, but they claim they never set out in their study to justify those policies.

"We were struck by the fact that the issue was being fought with a lot of passion and rhetoric and almost no hard facts," said Mr. Bok, who is now a Harvard University professor.

Their work was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York, where Mr. Bowen is the president.

Their study looked at the test scores, grades, graduation rates, and choice of majors for black and white students who attended 28 of the nation's most selective colleges and universities.

They drew in particular on data about students who entered college in 1976 and 1989. Those students were surveyed during the 1990s, six to 15 years after graduating, for additional information on their careers and their attitudes about their college experiences.

Mr. Bowen and Mr. Bok found, as other studies have, that black students arrive at universities such as Yale and Stanford with lower test scores and grades than their white classmates. While in school, they graduate at a lower rate and earn poorer grades.

Success Stories

Yet after graduation, the new study found, black students earn advanced degrees at rates equivalent to--and, in some fields, higher than---their white classmates.

Minority graduates with advanced degrees then go on to become community leaders and enjoy remarkably successful careers. They become, in the authors' words, "the backbone of the emerging black and Hispanic middle class."

Though the book provides some data on Hispanics, most of its focus is on African-Americans.

In fact, the researchers found, the pool of black students in the study who started college in 1976 were earning an average of $85,000 a year in 1995--more than the nationwide average for holders of bachelor's degrees.

"Of course, these people are better qualified to begin with than the general set of people who go on to earn bachelor's degrees," said Mr. Bowen, an economist. "But we compared black graduates of these colleges with white students across the board who were A students and you still find these graduates do extremely well."

That, he added, "shows that the selection processes that schools have been using have in the main worked very well."

Also, roughly three-quarters of black students and half or more of the white students surveyed said it was "very important" to learn to work well and get along with members of other races.

Regardless of whether they had gotten into their first-choice colleges, nearly 80 percent of the white students favored race-sensitive admissions policies, the study also found.

If the institutions in the study were to adopt race-blind admissions practices, the authors conclude, white students' chances of getting into those programs would increase just slightly, from 25 percent to 26.5 percent. On the other hand, the proportion of black students in those programs would fall by more than half, from 7 percent to 3 percent.

Supporting Research

A separate study released last Friday by the Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science supports that prediction.

Concerned about rollbacks of affirmative action programs in Texas and California in the mid-1990s, and challenges to those practices elsewhere, the association examined entering classes of graduate science and engineering programs at 93 major research universities from 1994 to 1997.

Between 1996 and 1997, a time during which affirmative action programs were being curtailed, they found that the number of black students enrolled in those programs dropped by a precipitous 20 percent. Hispanic enrollments dropped 18.2 percent over the same period.

"This is not the kind of thing you'd like to see when you're trying to move in the other direction," said Shirley Malcom, an author of the study and the director of the association's directorate for education and human resources.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Page 5

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Book Cites Benefits of Race-Based College Admissions
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