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September 9, 1998

Study of Affirmative Action at Top Schools Cites Far-Reaching Benefits

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    A major new study of the records and experiences of tens of thousands of students over 20 years at the some of the nation's top colleges and universities concludes that their affirmative action policies created the backbone of the black middle class and taught white classmates the value of integration.

    The study, which challenges much of the conservative thinking about affirmative action, is to be released Wednesday by Princeton University Press in a book titled "The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions." It was written by two former Ivy League presidents, William Bowen of Princeton University, an economist, and Derek Bok of Harvard University, a political scientist.

    Examining grades, test scores, choice of major, graduation rates, careers and attitudes of 45,000 students at 28 of the most selective schools, the authors say that although they are both advocates of race-conscious admissions policies, they wanted to test the assumptions underlying such policies.

    Having completed the work, they say it should put to rest major objections to such policies, especially that both whites and blacks are ultimately cheated by them.

    With its rich database and carefully calibrated tone, the study will most likely lead the charge in a liberal counteroffensive to recast the debate over affirmative action, which in the last two years has been rolled back in California and Texas and is under serious challenge in Michigan and Washington.

    The counteroffensive, involving books, articles and academic conferences, seeks to broaden the notion of "merit" beyond tests and grades and hails affirmative action less as a means of overcoming past discrimination -- an older argument with decreasing political support -- and more as a way to insure a healthier future for whites and blacks. Among the other new studies are "Chilling Admissions: The Affirmative Action Crisis and the Search for Alternatives," published by the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University, and "The Black-White Test Score Gap" from the Brookings Institution.

    The Bowen-Bok study limits itself to the practice of race-conscious admissions in elite higher education; that is, to considering the race of applicants to be a critical factor in whether they should be admitted, as important as, say, their region of origin or their extracurricular activities.

    The study begins by documenting the problem clearly: blacks who enter elite institutions do so with lower test scores and grades than those of whites. And as they work their way through liberal arts colleges like Yale and Princeton and state schools like the Universities of Michigan and North Carolina, black students receive lower grades and graduate at a lower rate.

    But after graduation, the survey found, these students achieve notable successes. They earn advanced degrees at rates identical to those of their white classmates. They are even slightly more likely than whites from the same institutions to obtain professional degrees in law, business and medicine. And they become more active than their white classmates in civic and community activities.

    The authors call black graduates of elite institutions "the backbone of the emergent black middle class" and say that their influence extends well beyond the workplace. "They 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."

    One of the most striking findings is how much an elite college education serves as a pathway to success for all races. Blacks who graduate from elite colleges earn 70 percent to 85 percent more than do black graduates generally.

    Blacks and whites report fairly substantial social interaction at college, which they say helped them relate to members of different racial groups later in life. Finally, the more selective the college, the more likely were blacks who attended it to graduate, obtain advanced degrees and earn high salaries.

    The authors' focus on selective universities illustrates what they consider an often-ignored point: the debate over race-conscious admissions is relevant only to about 25 percent of American universities. The rest take all or nearly all who apply.

    Bowen and Bok say there are many other facts that have been overlooked in the debate as well.

    "Until now, this issue has involved much emotion but little evidence," said Bowen, who is now president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which sponsored the research. "When the Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, it relied heavily on social science studies. We hope our data influence the current Supreme Court when it rules on affirmative action."

    A number of recent developments show that race-conscious admissions policies, approved within limits by the Supreme Court in its splintered 1978 Bakke ruling, are in trouble with the American public and may face re-examination by the justices.

    In the 1996 Hopwood case, for example, the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals barred the use of race in university admissions, both public and private, in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

    A pair of cases, expected to go to trial in mid-1999, challenges the undergraduate and law school admission systems at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, charging that they give illegal advantage to black and other minority applicants. In 1996, California banned the consideration of race in its public university admissions. In the state of Washington, a similar ban is up for voter approval in November.

    "The Shape of the River" draws on data about students who entered college in 1976 and 1989 and on lengthy follow-up confidential questionnaires with them. It focuses on blacks because of the quantity of data available and because blacks have been the heart of the debate. But the authors say a companion study of Hispanic students is under way.

    Eighty percent of those receiving questionnaires responded. The database, called College and Beyond, was built by the Mellon Foundation beginning in late 1994. It provides statistical life histories as well as personal views of 45,184 individuals on education and occupation, income, retrospective views of college, interaction with other races and civic participation.

    The 28 institutions involved in the study were Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Columbia University, Denison University, Duke University, Emory University, Hamilton University, Kenyon College, Miami University (Ohio), Northwestern University, Oberlin College, Pennsylvania State University, Princeton University, Rice University, Smith College, Stanford University, Swarthmore College, Tufts University, Tulane University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, Washington University, Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, Williams College and Yale University.

    Bowen and Bok say in their book that a "race-neutral" admissions policy would be disastrous for American society, reducing black percentages at top schools to less than 2 percent from the current 7 percent.

    As an illustration of what that would mean, they constructed a rough profile of 700 black students admitted in 1976 under race-conscious policies. Of the 700, 225 obtained professional degrees or doctorates; 70 are now medical doctors, 60 are lawyers, 125 are business executives and more than 300 are civic leaders. Their average annual earnings are $71,000.

    A more troubling question, the authors acknowledge, regards the white students whom these black students displaced. Would society have been better off if they had attended instead of the blacks?

    "That is the central question," the authors write, "and it cannot be answered by data alone." It is a clash of "principle versus principle, not principle versus expediency." They come down firmly on the side of admitting the blacks, saying that society needs them because of the scarcity of black professionals.

    But they added a statistical argument and illustrated it with an analogy to parking spaces for handicapped drivers drawn from a forthcoming article by Thomas J. Kane. "Eliminating the reserved space would have only a minuscule effect on parking options for non-disabled drivers," Kane writes. "But the sight of the open space will frustrate many passing motorists who are looking for a space. Many are likely to believe that they would now be parked if the space were not reserved."

    Bowen and Bok point out that if more than half of the blacks accepted at selective colleges had been rejected, the probability of acceptance for another white applicant would rise only 2 percent, to 27 percent from 25 percent.

    In other words, like handicapped parking spaces, race-conscious admission policies have a major impact on the minority group in question whereas eliminating them would only marginally help members of the majority community.

    One commonly voiced objection to affirmative action that the authors seek to demolish is the assertion that since blacks admitted through race-sensitive policies do not keep up with their white colleagues, they end up failed and stigmatized, an argument put forth by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom in their influential book "America in Black and White" (Simon and Schuster, 1997).

    "When students are given a preference in admission because of their race or some other extraneous characteristic," the Thernstroms wrote, "it means that they are jumping into a competition for which their academic achievements do not qualify them and many find it hard to keep up."

    But Bowen and Bok say their data contradict that assertion. They found that the black dropout rate for the elite institutions practicing affirmative action was 25 percent, much lower than the national black dropout average of 60 percent. The more selective the college, the lower the black dropout rate.

    Retired Gen. Colin Powell, one of a handful of people given advance copies of the book, said he was deeply impressed by the quality of the study and by its conclusion that blacks given a chance to attend elite colleges went on to lead successful lives.

    Asked about the stigma that opponents say affirmative action imposes on blacks who attend these schools, Powell dismissed it, saying, "I would tell black youngsters to graduate from the schools magna cum laude and get one of those well-paying jobs to pay for all the therapy they'll need to remove that stigma."

    Generally, the authors say, their findings offer robust support for the way in which selective colleges have engaged in admissions procedures, examining merit in a broad context and assessing both the needs of the institution and the society.

    "If you ask what bothers the public about these admission policies, it is probably the sense that there is some unfairness here," Bok said. "I have two responses. One is that there is a tendency to equate fairness with high school grades and scores that is not well-founded in terms of admissions practices. Second, fairness is something that really has to be defined in terms of what the institution is legitimately trying to accomplish.

    "In the case of universities and colleges, race turns out to be very relevant because we are interested in what students can teach one another and race is a part of that in an increasingly diverse society. Well-prepared minorities have a special leadership role because there have been so few in the past. So what is fair involves the question of the purpose of a university. And, ultimately that question is not soluble with data."

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