A Case for Race-Sensitive College Admissions

To Derek Bok and William Bowen, both former presidents of Ivy League colleges, the rationale for "race-sensitive" college admissions lies in the numbers:

Take the 700 blacks who, in 1976, entered 28 selective schools studied by Drs. Bok and Bowen - students who would not have been admitted without race preferences.

Of these, 225 went on to get professional degrees or doctorates; about 70 are doctors, while 60 are lawyers; about 125 are business executives, and more than 300 are civic leaders. Average earnings exceed $71,000 annually. And 65 percent said they were "very satisfied" with their undergraduate experience.

Race-neutral admissions policies, Bok and Bowen argue in their new book "The Shape of the River," would chop the proportion of black students in the most selective schools by 73 percent - and thus chip away at the benefits society has received by strengthening the "backbone of the emergent black middle class."

That's the argument that winds its way through their book, a full-scale counterattack on the increasing antipathy toward race-based admissions policies.

Bok, formerly president of Harvard University, and Bowen, who headed Princeton University, don't advocate race-sensitive admissions to redress societal or historical wrongs toward minorities - including slavery. Instead, they say, diversity in colleges is valuable to both education and society because it boosts minority middle-class earning power and achievement. That's important, since by 2030 about 40 percent of all Americans will be minorities.

The book is packed with statistics from a database tracking more than 45,000 white and minority students from 28 selective colleges and universities between the 1970s and early 1990s. Both authors deny being on the attack, saying only that their intent was to "inform with facts."

"We didn't set out to deflate anything - that wasn't the purpose," says Bowen. Their book systematically torpedoes arguments against the use of race as a factor in admissions. "It was time to take stock ... to test the assumptions [that race-sensitive admissions policies were beneficial] and see how these policies had worked."

For his part, Bok says he was "intellectually prepared" if the data turned out to contradict presumptions that race-based admissions benefit learning, the individual, and society.

As it turned out, the data indicated otherwise. For instance, blacks admitted to selective schools under race-sensitive admissions programs had higher salary levels, higher graduation rates, and more community involvement and leadership than they otherwise would have, according to the authors.

But not everyone is warming to Bok and Bowen's defense.

Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank, argues that "race-sensitive" is just a euphemism for unconstitutional "race- driven" admissions bias - a practice that harms deserving nonminority students who have better test scores and grades.

"That's a wonderful phrase," Ms. Thernstrom says. "It's as if it's just one of many factors thrown in the pot. But race is the determining factor.... That's called race-driven, not race-sensitive."

Thernstrom, with her husband, Stephen, wrote "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible" last year. She says Bok and Bowen discuss graduation rates ad nauseum, with minimal attention to the high rates of black students dropping out or getting grades at the bottom of their class.

"They're saying, 'Look how well these students do, they're paying no price at all for the mismatch in their academic readiness for these highly competitive schools," she says. "And I'm saying, 'Wait a minute.'"

Bok and Bowen acknowledge a dropout rate for blacks that is 50 percent higher than for whites. Then they point out that the dropout rate is more than 60 percent for blacks at large public universities, many of them nonselective.

Bok and Bowen also address arguments that:

* Rather than being helped, black Americans and other minorities are actually stigmatized by colleges who admit them even though their academic credentials may be lower than white students. (Bowen and Bok surveys show high levels of satisfaction among minorities.)

* Minorities at such high-level institutions are more likely to drop out than if they had attended schools where their SAT scores and grades are more in sync with other students. (Bowen and Bok found that 75 percent of black students at selective schools in 1989 graduated from the college they entered - a much higher rate than among less-selective schools.)

* Even if minorities are admitted under such policies and graduate, they won't be able to perform well in the labor market or graduate school. (Bowen and Bock found more black than white graduates holding down full-time jobs, with high pay levels and high job satisfaction rates.

Take, for instance, the oft-echoed criticism that black students with lower academic skills than white peers would be benefited more - get better grades and a higher class ranking - if they attended schools where their academic credentials more closely mirrored white students.

Bowen and Bok call this the "fit" hypothesis. But, they say, black students with modest SAT scores actually did better at more selective schools - with higher graduation rates from tougher schools - than at schools where the blacks' scores were closer to white classmates.

Not only that, the earned income of those blacks with modest SAT scores who graduated from tougher schools was higher. Black men with a combined verbal and math SAT below 1,000 who attended such schools earned on average $86,700.

One who believes that "The Shape of the River" delivers a wallop is David Karen, an associate professor of sociology at Bryn Mawr (Pa.) College, one of the schools studied.

"They are directly trying to enter the debate about affirmative action and provide empirical data to bolster assertions that have been made for years" about the benefits of race-based admissions," says Dr. Karen. "They've ... done quite a masterful job."

As to the argument that it is simply unfair to prefer one student with lower grades over another with higher grades based on skin color, Bok demurs.

"Why should skin color be considered any different a factor [in admissions] than geography, or alumni parentage, or sports ability?" he asks. "It has become odious because of our nation's history. We can't ultimately resolve this national issue based on data alone. It will depend on values."

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