A Case for Race-Sensitive College Admissions

By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Case for Race-Sensitive College Admissions


Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


To Derek Bok and William Bowen, both former presidents of Ivy League colleges, the rationale for "race-sensitive" college admissions lies in the numbers:

Take the 700 blacks who, in 1976, entered 28 selective schools studied by Drs. Bok and Bowen - students who would not have been admitted without race preferences.

Of these, 225 went on to get professional degrees or doctorates; about 70 are doctors, while 60 are lawyers; about 125 are business executives, and more than 300 are civic leaders. Average earnings exceed $71,000 annually. And 65 percent said they were "very satisfied" with their undergraduate experience. Race-neutral admissions policies, Bok and Bowen argue in their new book "The Shape of the River," would chop the proportion of black students in the most selective schools by 73 percent - and thus chip away at the benefits society has received by strengthening the "backbone of the emergent black middle class." That's the argument that winds its way through their book, a full- scale counterattack on the increasing antipathy toward race-based admissions policies. Bok, formerly president of Harvard University, and Bowen, who headed Princeton University, don't advocate race-sensitive admissions to redress societal or historical wrongs toward minorities - including slavery. Instead, they say, diversity in colleges is valuable to both education and society because it boosts minority middle-class earning power and achievement. That's important, since by 2030 about 40 percent of all Americans will be minorities. The book is packed with statistics from a database tracking more than 45,000 white and minority students from 28 selective colleges and universities between the 1970s and early 1990s. Both authors deny being on the attack, saying only that their intent was to "inform with facts." "We didn't set out to deflate anything - that wasn't the purpose," says Bowen. Their book systematically torpedoes arguments against the use of race as a factor in admissions. "It was time to take stock ... to test the assumptions {that race-sensitive admissions policies were beneficial} and see how these policies had worked." For his part, Bok says he was "intellectually prepared" if the data turned out to contradict presumptions that race-based admissions benefit learning, the individual, and society. As it turned out, the data indicated otherwise. For instance, blacks admitted to selective schools under race-sensitive admissions programs had higher salary levels, higher graduation rates, and more community involvement and leadership than they otherwise would have, according to the authors. But not everyone is warming to Bok and Bowen's defense. Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank, argues that "race-sensitive" is just a euphemism for unconstitutional "race- driven" admissions bias - a practice that harms deserving nonminority students who have better test scores and grades. "That's a wonderful phrase," Ms. Thernstrom says. "It's as if it's just one of many factors thrown in the pot. But race is the determining factor.... That's called race-driven, not race- sensitive." Thernstrom, with her husband, Stephen, wrote "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible" last year. …

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