The BOOKPRESS December 1998

Educating Oursleves

Edward T. Chase

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

In the title of their scrupulously objective and rigorous new study, William Bowen and Derek Bok invoke Mark Twain’s Mississippi, which, as they point out, was "symbolically central to the progress of the country." They go on to say that "[t]he image of the river is also central to the story of our book, which is concerned with the flow of talent—particularly of talented black men and women—through the country’s system of higher education and on into the marketplace and the larger society."

Bok and Bowen’s "story" is actually a comprehensive examination of a revolutionary large new database of over 80,000 matriculants to 28 selected colleges in the falls of 1951, 1976 and 1989. In addition to analyzing admissions procedures and academic outcomes, they evaluate the post-education careers of 45,000 students of all races of the classes of 1976 and 1989. This post-school research constitutes a "first."

Perhaps the most singular emphasis in The Shape of the River is on the benefits to society in general of race-sensitive admissions policies to superior colleges and professional schools. Bok and Bowen produce remarkable statistics evidencing the financial success, leadership, and civic participation of the minority graduates.

In a telling passage, the authors construct a profile of the roughly 700 black matriculants in the 1976 cohort they estimate would have been rejected by the schools involved in the study had race-neutral admission policies been in effect. The results of their analysis are striking:

• Over 225 members of this group of retrospectively rejected black matriculants went on to attain professional degrees or doctorates.
• About 70 of them are now doctors, and roughly 60 are lawyers.
• Nearly 125 are business executives.
• Well over 300 are leaders of civic activities.
• The average earnings of the individuals in the group exceeds $ 71 ,000.
• Almost two-thirds of the group (65 percent) were very satisfied with their undergraduate experience.

A large majority of interviewed matriculants, both black and white, testified that diversity enhanced their ability to understand and work well with members of other races. "Of the many thousands of former matriculants who responded to our survey," Bok and Bowen write, "the vast majority believe that going to college with a diverse body of fellow students made a valuable contribution to their education and personal development. There is overwhelming support for the proposition that the progress made over the last thirty years in achieving greater diversity is to be prized, not devalued."

In a detailed analysis of the admissions records of five of the schools in the database, Bok and Bowen estimate that a race-neutral standard would reduce black enrollment by 50-70%. The most selective schools, they find, would experience the largest drops in black enrollment, to less than 2% of all enrollment.

Furthermore, the authors estimate that a race-neutral standard would result in only a modest increase in white students’ odds of admission to these schools. If white students filled all the places created by reducing black enrollment, the overall probability of admissions for white students would rise only one-and-one-half percentage points: from 25% to roughly 26.5%. Here the authors invoke Thomas Kane’s shrewd analogy of misperception in the case of parking places reserved for the handicapped: "Eliminating the reserve space would have only a minuscule effect on parking options for non-disabled drivers. 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."

This reviewer wishes the authors were not quite so leery of commenting on the "affirmative action" given to college legatees and athletes. Perhaps they would argue there are some overall societal rewards to these policies, since they buttress the finances of worthy institutions like those each author once headed—Bowen is a former President of Princeton, Bok of Harvard. (Although, actually, these Ivy League institutions are limited recruiters of athletes per se and chary of mediocre legatees.)

Most of us personally experience some informal "affirmative action." In my case, my father was a Woodstock artist, broke after the 1930s Crash, who guilelessly persuaded the headmasters of two top prep schools, Hackley and then Lawrenceville, to take a chance on accepting me for free, which in turn facilitated my later getting full scholarships at Princeton. Purely my luck—with benign chain-reaction consequences for my own children.

From a long perspective, we practiced affirmative action long before the term emerged. Economists identify "compensatory transfers" in social welfare among all market-oriented nations. The Roosevelt Administration’s PWA and collateral programs were instituted to help artists collectively to survive the Depression, on the grounds they contributed to society—this decades before the Kennedy and Nixon Administrations’ affirmative action policies, such as mandating specific "outreach" measures for hiring laborers on federally contracted projects, and minority employee "set asides."

The authors make clear that their advocacy of race-sensitive admissions in higher education, their limited focus, does not necessarily illuminate specifically how affirmative action should be implemented in other areas. Nevertheless, their book constitutes a powerful case for affirmative action’s benefits to society as a whole.

The Shape of the River bears indirectly on the fundamental issue of socio-economic inequality, which is on the increase in all capitalist-market-oriented polities, including the United States. Egregious inequality is notoriously a source of societal instability, crucially affecting crime, public health, mortality rates, and, in the extreme, the risk of war. Humanity will never see "equal shares" of the world’s goodies for all. But the subjection of the vast majority of people to subsistence levels remains an abomination which, ignored, is a peril for all of us. Bowen and Bok show that, with respect to inequality, affirmative action policies, at least in America, can make an increasingly important difference.

Edward Chase is the former editor-in- chief of New York Times Books and senior editor at Scribner. He is a frequent contributor to The Bookpress.

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