Race and College Admissions

By Bunzel, John H. | The Public Interest, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Race and College Admissions


Bunzel, John H., The Public Interest


When I began my academic career in the early 1950s, there were virtually no black students at the leading Ivy League universities. A decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, blacks still comprised no more than 1 percent of the student body at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. But, by the early 1970s, black students at these three "selective institutions" ranged from 7 percent to 10 percent of the freshman class. Nationwide, the percentage of blacks rose from 4.3 percent in 1960 to 9.8 percent in 1975.

These dramatic gains were made after the racial upheavals in many of the major cities in the late 1960s and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. Only days after King's death, representatives of the Black Student Union at Stanford University convened a mass meeting and presented to the administration a list of demands for immediate change. Among other things, they asked for representation of minority groups in the student body in proportion to their numbers in the general population and for a central role to be given to black students and black faculty in evaluating minority applicants.

It was a scenario repeated in varying forms on campuses nationwide. Conceding that minority students were indeed underrepresented, university administrators and faculty recommended immediate corrective action. Admissions formulas were quickly proposed that gave less weight to traditional academic criteria such as College Board results and high-school grade-point averages. This ensured that more minority students would be accepted as freshmen. While many of the initial plans proved to be unwise and unworkable, they nonetheless provided a basis for subsequent efforts to establish new and more "subjective" admissions criteria, including affirmative-action preferences for black and Hispanic applicants.

But highly selective institutions faced a problem in granting special preferences to underrepresented minorities: how to identify a pool of college-bound minority seniors minimally eligible for admission. It quickly became clear that the pool was not large enough to generate the increase in numbers that top universities were now aiming for, especially since other institutions were also intensifying their minority-recruitment efforts. In the mid 1980s, for example, fewer than 4,200 black high-school graduates had grade-point averages of 3.75 or better. SAT scores were also dishearteningly low. Fewer than one thousand black secondary-school seniors had verbal SAT scores of 600 or better, and fewer than 1,700 had comparable math SAT scores.(1)

A related, if rarely discussed, problem facing university admissions procedures is how much weight to give to diversity. In my conversations with admissions officers, I have regularly been told that, in selecting a freshman class, a major goal is "diversity." Officials will admit that "special consideration" is shown to certain ethnic minority groups, and that membership in such a minority group can be an important factor in whether a candidate is chosen over others who may have better academic credentials. But these same officials are reluctant to acknowledge that "special consideration" easily becomes, in practice, outright preference or to discuss how far they are willing to stretch the standards to attract minorities.

University officials have also not fully explained how the goal of ethnic diversity is balanced against other factors or, more sensitively, whether "diversity" can mask controversial criteria that admissions officers employ when exercising their discretionary authority. Diversity has developed a life of its own: Admissions officers insist that it is indispensable to the education of students. As Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz has pointed out, it therefore becomes difficult "to hold the University accountable for its admissions programs or for any particular admissions decisions."

The party line

Researchers and others have long felt that there are major gaps in their knowledge of what actually occurs in the admissions process at the elite institutions. …

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