The River Running through College Admissions

By Malveaux, Julianne | Black Issues in Higher Education, October 29, 1998 | Go to article overview

The River Running through College Admissions


Malveaux, Julianne, Black Issues in Higher Education


SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: The River Running Through College Admissions

If you don't read another book about higher education this year, you must read William G. Bowen's and Derek Bok's The Shape of the River: Long Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton University Press, 1998).

Elegantly written, thoughtful, and based on a thorough analysis of detailed longitudinal data, the book examines the effects of using race as one of many factors in college admissions. The book analyzes the achievement and experiences of students at a set of academically select college and universities who were in the classes of 1976 and 1989. It examines their academic and employment experiences, civic contributions, personal lives, and perspectives on college.

Written by two former college presidents (Bok is the immediate past-president of Harvard University, and Bowen was president of Princeton University), the book takes a tone that is extremely deliberate. When Bowen and Bok discuss the meaning of "merit" in the closing chapter, their years of experience in higher education are never more clear. As thought-provoking as they are thoughtful, the authors manage to shed light on a subject that has, to date, generated far too much heat.

"The image of the river is...central to the story of our book, which is concerned with the flow of talent," write Bowen and Bok in their preface.

The river is certainly an appropriate metaphor to facilitate an exploration of the college admissions process and an analysis of race in the process. Quantitative analysis dominates the book, but the metaphor of river, which is constantly referred to, gives the book energy and "soul."

The authors' vested interest in developing a more multicultural society as well as a diverse campus, is evident in the "river" metaphor, as well. In their concluding paragraphs, they return to their the river, ending, "We are headed downstream, even though there may be still miles to go before the river empties, finally, into the sea."

According to Bowen and Bok, society is better off for having considered race as a factor for admission at academically selective colleges and universities. Those African Americans who graduated -- nearly 75 percent of those admitted to these schools -- went on to make significant contributions to society. By heading civic organizations, earning high incomes, and working in the corporate sector, these Black graduates, in some ways, make a more positive contribution to society than their White counterparts.

That's the benefit of affirmative action: it opens doors. And once doors are opened, highly motivated people take full advantage of the opportunities that they have.

But what about stigma? After all, consciousness-challenged Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has asserted that affirmative action causes stigma. …

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