Getting to Yes

Richard Flacks is professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara

Four years ago this month, the University of California Regents, led by Gov. Pete Wilson and Ward Connerly, voted to end affirmative action in UC admissions. One year later, California voters passed Proposition 209, abolishing state government affirmative action. These events seemed to mark the demise of affirmative action, yet the debate continues on campuses, in the courts and in the political arena. In "The Shape of the River," William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, and Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, provide us with a detailed report on the "long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions." Their findings call into question the assumptions about racial preference in higher education that have fueled the drive to end affirmative action nationally as well as in California.

Their book is based on a rather extraordinary database called "College and Beyond." The Mellon Foundation (Bowen is now its president) built this collection of information, drawn from more than 80,000 students who entered one of 28 selective colleges and universities (ranging from Yale to Chapel Hill) in 1951, 1976 and 1989. A wealth of data was accumulated: high school grades, SAT scores, grades and majors and activities in college, family class background and information about students' postgraduate lives (professional school attendance, career information, community service and their retrospective feelings about their college experience). Because the race of these students was known and because the data were collected at very different periods, the database made studying the effects of affirmative action possible.

In 1951, less than 1% of the students entering these schools were black. By 1989, blacks made up about 7% of the entering classes in these highly selective colleges. What would have happened had race not been a factor in admissions in the '70s and '80s? Bowen and Bok found that more than half of the blacks admitted would not have attended under a "color-blind" admissions policy, largely because few blacks score at the highest ranges of the SAT test. The researchers were thus able to examine the experiences of black students who were admitted to these schools with relatively low test scores. Opponents of affirmative action argue that such students are likely to fail or drop out. The study did find that black students' grade averages were below those of white students, and their dropout rates were higher. But the study also shows what happened to the more than 70% who did graduate.

There were about 700 black students who, in 1976, would have been rejected under a race-neutral policy; of these, 225 went on to graduate and professional schools, 130 became doctors or lawyers, 125 are business executives. Of the 700, at least 300 can be called community leaders, and the people in this group earn an average salary of more than $70,000.

In general, black graduates were at least as likely to go to graduate school as their white peers. Black women graduates were considerably more likely to work full-time than white women. White graduates earned appreciably more on average than blacks--but the average income of black graduates of these schools was substantially higher than national averages of either white or black college graduates. The study demonstrates that race-sensitive admissions policies enabled thousands of African Americans to enter the higher reaches of American institutional leadership during the last 25 years.

The study also demonstrates that these successful students were capable of making the grade once given the chance. The notion that black students with low test scores, but judged on other grounds to have high promise, would be better off and happier at less selective schools is contradicted by this study. One of the most surprising findings is that black students at the most selective schools had the most success in later life by all sorts of measures. Graduation rates for black students were higher at the most demanding schools. Contrary to those who predict that black students at elite schools are bound to be unhappy, graduates of such schools remember their experience favorably.

Affirmative action has served as a crucial means to increase the number of people of color in the upper middle class. These upwardly mobile graduates, moreover, have typically been engaged in community service as well as their own careers. Indeed, black graduates were much more likely than their white counterparts to "take on leadership positions in virtually every type of civic endeavor."

"The Shape of the River" makes it impossible to flatly claim that affirmative action hasn't worked. After 25 years, blacks remain greatly underrepresented at these selective schools (as they are in higher education generally), and discrimination is still pervasive in the job world; even blacks with Harvard and Yale degrees earn, on average, tens of thousands of dollars less than their white peers. But affirmative action has always been seen as only one tool to achieve racial equality and justice. We now have strong evidence that the actual purpose of affirmative action in higher education was being accomplished: The student bodies of these schools became more racially diverse; professions were becoming more racially inclusive; the number of highly educated leaders, role models and professionals available to disadvantaged communities was increasing; and both white and black students benefited from the opportunity to interact with people of diverse racial backgrounds.

But is this fair to those whites (and Asian Americans) who were denied admission, even when they had better test scores? That sense of grievance is, after all, what has fueled the political opposition to affirmative action. "Fairness" isn't a matter that data alone can settle. But people who most vehemently resist affirmative action rarely look at the important issues that this book highlights.

First, ending affirmative action will have almost no effect on the chances of admission for white students because the numbers of black students who gained "preferential" admission is so small. For example, the UC system as a whole admits each year fewer than 1,000 black students in a total entering class of more than 20,000. Berkeley is so competitive that each year at least 4,000 straight-A students are denied admission there; this has not changed since affirmative action was abandoned. Bowen and Bok offer the following analogy: In a jammed parking lot, everyone driving past an empty handicapped space feels anger and frustration. Yet if that set-aside were eliminated, our chances of getting a parking space would not improve noticeably.

Second, while test score differences between white and black students are significant, this study demonstrates that SAT scores are poor predictors of academic and career achievement. The data strongly imply that we have to stop assuming that an SAT score is the primary indicator of student "quality" or qualification. The argument that it is unfair to admit people with lower scores ahead of some higher scorers loses force the more we understand the limitations of assessing performance based on numbers.

Bowen and Bok argue that admission to a selective (read elite) university is not a right possessed by anyone. Instead, "what admissions officers must decide is which . . . applicants, considered individually and collectively, will take fullest advantage of what the college has to offer, contribute most to the educational process . . . and be most successful in using what they have learned for the benefit of the . . . society."

The University of California system is a selective institution, but its selectivity is based on what appears to be an objective standard, rather than the kinds of subjectivity Bowen and Bok imply. High school graduates who are in the top 12.5% of the high school graduating class are eligible and entitled to attend a UC campus (not necessarily their first choice). The selective judgment Bowen and Bok's statement refers to does enter into the admissions procedures at those campuses where more want to attend than can be accommodated; Berkeley and UCLA are the most selective in this sense.

Affirmative action provided a means for making a judgment about which applicants can make best use of the opportunity to attend; now that it is gone, some long deferred and uncomfortable questions are surfacing: How do we decide who can "take fullest advantage" of what the university has to offer? A study by Scott Thomas and myself, done at UC Santa Barbara, finds that white students are two to three times more likely to binge drink than are black and Latino students--and similar ratios in alcohol (and also drug) use and abuse are consistently found nationally. The UCSB data show that the heaviest drinking and partying students on campus are those from the most affluent backgrounds. Meanwhile, minority and low-income students at UCSB, many working to support themselves, are generally more focused on their classes, more likely to engage in cultural activities outside the classroom and more active in community service than are those from the wealthiest backgrounds. The last may have higher scores, but many seem involved in a culture that shields them from taking full advantage of what the school has to offer. How do we factor students' diligence and eagerness to learn into our admissions practice?

The UC Regents have adopted a proposal, backed by the university administration and Gov. Gray Davis, which would make the top 4% of seniors at each and every high school in California automatically eligible for UC system admission. Until now, the UC has drawn its students from only about half of the state's high schools. The 4% plan is a modest but significant means to make the student body more geographically and economically representative of students in the state; its effects on racial diversity are hard to estimate. But it could have a strong galvanizing effect on schools and communities that until now have seen the University as unreachable.

Bowen and Bok show that students from disadvantaged backgrounds can thrive in the environment provided by elite colleges--perhaps because, in such schools, mentoring is a matter of course, the welfare of individual students is a matter of institutional concern, classes are small and everyone is assumed to be worthy. A truly fair system would provide every young person in America with the sort of pedagogical attention now reserved for the wealthier and more privileged classes. Such a system would be an authentically superior alternative to affirmative action. If we could create schools that enabled each child, regardless of background, to realize his and her potential, we would finally be attaining "equal opportunity." Bowen and Bok convincingly demonstrate that affirmative action has served as a cheaper and much more modest method of leveling the playing field. Instead of claiming that affirmative action doesn't work, critics will have to demonstrate that they know a better way.

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