Unexplored Tributaries

The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, by William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 472 pages, $24.95

The debate over affirmative action in college admissions has often been couched in terms of moral imperatives. On one side stand the advocates of a color-blind world, who take their cue from Justice John Marshall Harlan's powerful 1896 dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, which protested judicial acquiescence to racial segregation in the South. Today the opponents of affirmative action hark back to Harlan's theme: Race is irrelevant; only individual merit should determine the distribution of awards and honors in society.

Pitted against the opponents of affirmative action are the equally vocal and passionate educators and social leaders who view with abiding skepticism any abstract moral commitment to color blindness. They believe that affirmative action is necessary in many walks of life. Some of them insist that race-conscious policies must be used to rectify the many forms of discrimination--some invidious, some unconscious--that have scarred the American past and continue to shape its future. Others, including William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, do not emphasize this backward-looking justification. Rather, they advocate diversity in admissions to ensure minorities a meaningful place in the university community, not only for their benefit but for the benefit of everyone else as well.

Much is left unsettled in a debate that takes place at so high a level. The opponents of affirmative action too often sound dogmatic and absolutist in their attacks on what has become a widespread social practice. For their part, the defenders of affirmative action come off as special pleaders who always manage to advance some convenient social justification for policies from which they reap enormous benefits. The constant struggle between this white applicant who has been passed over (or claims such) and that black applicant with inferior academic credentials adds a sharp, human edge to the controversy, which is only partially blunted by the reassurance that affirmative action policies (sometimes gussied up as "race-sensitive" admissions) make everything work out in the long run.

Into this maelstrom have waded two formidable defenders of affirmative action, both with impeccable academic credentials. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, now heads the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Bok, a former president of Harvard University and dean of the Harvard Law School, now teaches in Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Both men presided over great American universities noted for their unwavering commitment to affirmative action. In The Shape of the River, they defend in principle the policies that they implemented in practice. They do so in a low-key, measured fashion, with all hyperbolic observations carefully excised. Like Jack Webb, they ask for "just the facts." They believe that once these have been assembled, their detailed account of affirmative action programs will speak for itself.

Bowen and Bok's odd title is consciously lifted from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, where that great author notes that any riverboat pilot has to "know the shape of the river perfectly" for navigating both up and down the Mississippi, day or night. That image does not quite work, however. The riverboat pilot has to proceed from detailed firsthand knowledge precisely because maps and charts offer fallible guides. But Bowen and Bok do not rely primarily on experience, anecdote, hunch, or intuition to make their case, even if they intersperse their book with some well-chosen remarks of black and white devotees of affirmative action (without once offering any opposing voices). Recognizing that pleasing testimonials will not win over the determined doubters, Bowen and Bok appeal to data.

The data come from surveys of black and white students who enrolled in the freshman classes of 28 selective private and public universities in 1976 and in 1989. The schools covered by the study are mostly private, with only three public institutions among them, all of which rank in the third (lowest) tier of selectivity. Bowen and Bok measured selectivity based on the combined math and verbal SAT scores of the students who enrolled. The first tier, with average scores over 1300, consists of Bryn Mawr, Duke, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Swarthmore, Williams, and Yale. The second tier, with average scores between 1151 and 1300, consists of Barnard, Columbia, Emory, Hamilton, Kenyon, Northwestern, Oberlin, Pennsylvania, Smith, Tufts, Vanderbilt, Washington University, Wellesley, and Wesleyan. The third tier, with average scores of 1150 or below, consists of Denison, Miami (Ohio), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), Penn State, and Tulane.

Bowen and Bok chose two widely separated dates to represent different eras. They excluded more-recent years because there was not enough opportunity to follow these students after college graduation. They also omitted any assessment of affirmative action for Hispanic or Native American populations. In addition, the study leaves out some highly selective universities (Harvard and the University of Chicago among them) and, more important, most major state universities, including those in the California and Texas systems, whose affirmative action programs have been curbed by external pressures. (California's programs were brought to a halt by its Board of Regents, whose decision was ratified in a 1996 state referendum. The Texas system reached the same result through a 1996 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.) Nor does the book tackle the thorny problem of affirmative action in faculty hiring--a critical omission.

Within their carefully constrained universe, Bowen and Bok offer a moderately persuasive account of affirmative action's successes. They note that race-blind admissions policies at these selective schools, no matter how extensive their outreach programs, would sharply reduce the black presence on campus, from more than 7 percent of students to about 2 percent. They also make a strong case that any sensible admissions program takes into account more than grades and test scores in determining the relative "merit" of different applicants. They show that, within the pool of black applicants, admissions practices proceed along rational lines: Black students with stronger records generally do better than black students with weaker records. They demonstrate that the black students admitted to the first tier of selective schools have better records, higher graduation rates, better success in graduate and professional school, higher earnings profiles, more community involvement, and higher levels of personal satisfaction than black students who enroll in second-and third-tier institutions. The demoralizing effects of affirmative action are more hypothetical than real to the black students who benefit from their participation in these programs. It is no mystery why most black students strongly support diversity on campus and beyond.

Bowen and Bok believe this procession of happy findings renders affirmative action bulletproof. They display a certain impatience with critics of racial preferences, such as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, for harping on the conspicuous failures of affirmative action while ignoring its quieter, daily victories. My own views on this subject are more mixed, but it seems to me that Bowen and Bok's celebration is a bit premature. Here are some reasons.

The authors regrettably understate the connection between what happens at elite institutions and what happens at other schools. The ability of selective colleges and universities to gobble up all the credible black candidates influences the success or failure of affirmative action programs at second-tier institutions. Even if those students are "qualified" for admission, they are likely to be bunched at the bottom of the class, creating internal tensions that could more easily be obviated if black and white candidates within institutions competed on a more equal footing. It may be unrealistic to expect strong institutions to abandon affirmative action programs so their less distinguished rivals might succeed. But even if it is unwise to ask the highly selective colleges and universities to change their policies, it would be nice to see some acknowledgment that their gain produces some external pain.

Bowen and Bok's narrowness of vision leads to graver omissions. They argue that the issue of affirmative action arises only in selective universities with the luxury of rejecting some portion of their applicant pool. They tell us: "Many people are unaware of how few colleges and universities have enough applicants to be able to pick and choose among them. There is no single, unambiguous way of identifying the number of such schools, but we estimate that only about 20 to 30 percent of all four-year colleges and universities are in this category." But that reassurance rings hollow unless we are confident that all the large, flagship state universities are not on the list of selective schools. If some of them are, then 30 percent of the colleges and universities contain a lot more than 30 percent of the students. The affirmative action problem looks to be a lot more ubiquitous than Bowen and Bok make it appear.

To see why, it is important to count the number of students in each tier. I do not claim to have done anything like Bowen and Bok's exhaustive research, but I did whip out my son's copy of the Kaplan/Newsweek guide How to Get Into College for 1999, and here is what I discovered. For the 1997-98 academic year, the eight schools in Bowen and Bok's first tier had a total reported enrollment of 30,825 students, of whom 2,289, or about 7.4 percent, were black. The three state schools in the lowest tier had a total reported enrollment of 73,565 students, of whom 4,872, or 6.6 percent, were black. That number may be deceptively low because Penn State, with over 34,000 students, had only a 3 percent minority student enrollment.

If we add to the third tier just two schools, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin, the numbers jump to about 7,500 black students out of 129,000, or 5.9 percent. But even those numbers are misleading, because by far the larger minority student population at both places is Hispanic, constituting 14 percent and 15 percent, respectively, of their student bodies (as opposed to 6 percent and 4 percent, respectively, for blacks). Bowen and Bok thus engage in a peculiar form of lumping that overstates the importance of the elite schools and underestimates the differences between blacks and whites that can be seen when the large state universities are taken into account.

Consider a table (page 62) from the Thernstroms' America in Black and White, based on an article published in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. These data, for freshmen enrolling in 1992, paint a different picture than the data offered in The Shape of the River. Among these universities, the difference between the average white SAT score and the average black SAT score is smallest at Harvard, which engages only in relatively modest affirmative action and is able to take the best of the applicant pool because of its reputation. But as one moves down through the Ivies, the gap increases. It becomes huge at Virginia, whose undergraduate student body is twice the size of Harvard's, and at the University of California, Berkeley, whose undergraduate student body is over three times the size of Harvard's. Even if one concedes the importance of the elite schools, their small overall enrollment means that Bowen and Bok have directed their attention only to the tip of the iceberg. Most black students, like most white students, attend the large state universities that are underrepresented in this study. It is there that both the student populations and the SAT gaps are largest.

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