The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions

By Armstrong-Wright, Debra | National Forum, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions


Armstrong-Wright, Debra, National Forum


WILLIAM G. BOWEN and DEREK BOK. The Shape of The River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. 472 pages. $24.95.

Only once in a great while does one encounter a monograph with the persuasive power of The Shape of the River. Although the authors suggest that the book is "a careful accounting of how race-sensitive admissions policies have been applied during their thirty-year history, and what their consequences have been," it is, instead, a profound discussion of all the reasons why such policies should continue.

On page after page, William Bowen and Derek Bok respectfully note, consider, and then deftly refute each argument against considering race in admissions decisions at institutions of higher education. To those who would argue that admissions decisions should be based "strictly on merit," they point out the tendency so many of us have to narrowly, and superficially, define "merit" only in terms of grades and standardized test scores. Using a database called "College and Beyond" which was developed by the Andrew W Mellon foundation, Bowen and Bok analyze the academic performance of matriculants in the 1989 entering cohort at twenty-eight of the most academically selective colleges and universities throughout the nation. The institutions include both public and private colleges and universities, and the data represent approximately 32,000 students. Using the admissions and transcript records of those students, the authors measure the relationship between various academic outcomes (such as rank in class and graduation rates) and a number of supposed predictors (such as SAT scores, grades, and socioeconomic status). The results provide an unprecedented, yet penetrating, view of the many factors that influence academic success and demonstrate so clearly the complexity of the matter. With regard to predicting rank in class, they conclude that, "[t]aken together, grades and scores predict only 15 to 20 percent of the variance among all students in academic performance and a smaller percentage among black students."

Opponents of affirmative action frequently argue that it is unfair to consider race in admissions decisions when the result is that majority students are denied admission in favor of minority applicants with lower test scores and grades. The authors point out that "few colleges and universities have enough applicants to be able to pick and choose among them" and that "[n]ationally, the vast majority of undergraduate institutions accept all qualified candidates." How truly advantaged then are minorities, and black applicants in particular, by some attention to race? What would be the outcomes if all institutions were required to adopt race-neutral admissions policies? How much of what we know about these issues is based on myth, assumptions, and emotions, and how much is grounded in fact? …

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