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

Ethnic Studies Review, April 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

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


William G. Bowen and Derek Bok. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998). 472 pp., $24.95 cloth.

The metaphor conveyed in the title, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, captures the undercurrents, uncharted obstructions, and twists and turns as they unfold through the experiences and research of two captains who have navigated the mysteries of their journey through Affirmative Action in higher education.

Bowen and Bok's study of the long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions is drawn from a college and beyond database built by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundations consisting of more than 45,000 students. It is the most comprehensive statistically significant study of Affirmative Action to date.

The research focus is an analysis of data from 28 select colleges and universities. The cohort sets consisted of data collected the Fall of 1951, Fall 1976 and Fall of 1989. The database from the 1976 and 1989 cohorts recorded demographic information on race, sex, SAT scores, rank in high school class, college majors, grades, and extra-curricular activities. Later surveys were conducted to ascertain advanced degrees earned, employment sector occupation, income, marital status, number of children, civic activities, and attitudes about their college experiences. In addition, surveys of the 1989 matriculants included data on interaction with other races during and after college, political views, and geographic residency. The sample response rates were exceeding 80% for the 1976 matriculants and 84% for the 1989 matriculants.

The college and beyond cohorts included liberal arts and research institutions from across the United States. The institutions were divided into three groups based on selectivity of admissions according to the mean combined SAT scores of the freshman cohorts, SEL1: SAT 1250 or higher, SEL2: 1125-1249 and SEL3: SAT below 1150.

The book focuses on highly selective schools primarily because race-sensitive admissions are only an issue at institutions that must choose applicants from large numbers of well-qualified applicants. Twenty to thirty percent of higher education institutions in the nation receive more applications than there are seats, therefore the authors contend that "race" is used as an admission criteria most often at these institutions. …

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