Justice of a leg-up in the social race

The Shape of the River
January 22, 1999

British readers of The Shape of the River are likely to ask an obvious, perhaps inescapable, question. This account of the generally successful approach of the most selective US colleges and universities to the admission of black American students invites the question whether what works for race in the United States might work for class in Britain. If we feel almost as unhappy about class-based inequalities in access to higher education, and class-based inequalities in its competent completion, as Americans feel about race and ethnicity-based inequalities, should British universities respond in the way American universities have done? Or should the UK take the US view, separate out class and race, and deal only with the second by some sort of affirmative action? These questions can be left until some of William Bowen and Derek Bok's findings have been set out, but versions of them are asked in the pages of The Shape of the River .

US higher education is in an odd state with regard to affirmative action. In 1996 a federal court forbade publicly funded colleges and universities in Texas to take race into account when admitting students to the state's academic flagships - the University of Texas at Austin and its prestigious professional schools. This means that black and Hispanic students cannot be admitted as undergraduates with lower Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores than white students, and cannot get into law school with lower Legal Scholastic Aptitude Test (LSAT) scores. Last year, only 3 per cent of the entering class at UT Austin were African-American, and only 4.5 per cent of the entering class of the law school. In California, Proposition 209 passed by referendum the same year; it forbade the use of racial categories in deciding whether to admit undergraduates to the senior colleges of the university system, and has halved the number of African-Americans entering Berkeley as freshmen.

It is only in the case of the more selective colleges and universities that the issue of affirmative action arises with much sharpness. Sixty per cent of the 3,500 colleges and universities of the US have almost no selection process. Anyone with a high school diploma or a general equivalence diploma can go if they can afford the (often minimal) fees. Most professional schools are equally unselective. The most highly selective institutions, however, are exceedingly selective; it is not just that applicants to Harvard have only a one in seven chance of being accepted, there is no point applying unless your SAT scores are in the top 2 per cent or so.

It is that fact, and the fact that the best law schools and medical schools are even harder to get into, that causes the rows about affirmative action. Just as we would flinch at an Olympic competition that allowed some runners to start 30 or 40 yards ahead of their competitors, so many Americans flinch at an admissions system that lets in students with SAT scores between 200 and 400 points lower than their competitors. It looks like an affront to justice. Before concluding that it really is what it looks like, there are a few questions to ask and they are the ones that The Shape of the River is devoted to answering.

First, we might ask what the purpose of higher education is. We know that the purpose of Olympic competitions is to discover who can run the fastest, jump the farthest and so on. It is less obvious that the purpose of higher education is to discover who can jump through the hoops of the SAT, get straight A's, and do perfect LSATs. To the extent that these tests are of any value it is in telling us who can benefit from the training provided in universities and professional schools. But that raises another question - benefit how?

The professorial mind is too quick to think that the goal of undergraduate education is the production of professors and the promotion of research and scholarship. If we do not share that view, we might think that colleges and universities exist rather in order to nurture community leaders in all the varied walks of life. Some will certainly go into business, law or medicine, others into politics, religion, and public service. "It is helpful, in our view," say Bowen and Bok, "to think of admissions decisions as having many of the attributes of long-term investment decisions involving the creation of human social capital."

A society disfigured in the way US society is disfigured by the legacy of slavery and its discriminatory aftermath particularly needs investment in black social capital. To put it more colloquially, America needs a black middle class with more of the attributes of the white middle class. The next two questions are whether the most selective colleges and universities can do anything much to nurture it, and whether they can do so without unacceptably disadvantaging the white students who would, but for affirmative action, have been admitted to the top colleges and universities.

The authors of The Shape of the River complain, rightly, that arguments over affirmative action are too much informed by high principle and too little informed by vulgar fact. The Mellon Foundation, of which Bowen is president, has created a database - "College and Beyond" - that has gathered vast quantities of information on 80,000 students and former students at 28 highly selective institutions, including the top liberal arts colleges and research universities. The students matriculated in the autumn of 1951, 1976, and 1989; the last two cohorts filled out questionnaires that were sufficiently interesting to secure a response rate of 80 per cent and 84 per cent.

To abbreviate the results rather violently, what emerges is that if the intention is to create social capital, affirmative action has been very successful. The African-American students admitted on rather weaker credentials than their white contemporaries graduated at a slightly lower rate than those white contemporaries, but at a rate far higher than white students at less selective places. They went into professional schools in slightly higher proportions than their white contemporaries, and enjoyed an average income of $71, 000 when they filled out the questionnaire. This is lower than their white contemporaries, but twice the national average income. One bleaker truth that the authors do not much emphasise is that although their database covers 80,000 students, the number of African-American students remains very small. Even after lowering their SAT requirements, the top institutions find it hard to recruit as many students as they want.

But the cheerful news is that the white students who might have been expected to grumble about the leg-up given to their black colleagues do not do so. One reason is that they are only very marginally disadvantaged by such programmes; another, perhaps, is that the college admissions process is already littered with other forms of discrimination - including alumni preference, geographical balance, the needs of sports teams, and the prospects of future benefactions. Americans are, to a British eye, astonishingly relaxed about all this. Californian politicians who denounced affirmative action in the run-up to the vote on Proposition 209 had no qualms about smuggling their own and other politicians' kids into UCLA with SAT scores several hundred points below the median, and were not embarrassed when it was revealed that they were doing so. If racial preferences were the only preferences around, they might be more resented.

The other cheerful result is that African-American students do not suffer from any feeling that they do not belong in places where their white contemporaries will generally do much better than they. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom made much of this fear in their America in Black and White , but it turns out to be pious nonsense. There is room for anxiety, but not about students' feelings. The cause for anxiety lies in the way African-American students underperform all the way through school, and go on doing so all the way through college; whatever background factor one holds constant, from income, parental occupation, SAT scores onwards, white students turn in better grades, faster completion, and more certain completion.

So, are there lessons for this side of the Atlantic? The most obvious lesson holds on both sides of the Atlantic, and is very simple. Going to a top institution of higher education is likely to be enjoyable even if one is far from the top of one's class, and it is almost certain to have benign effects on one's self-confidence, public spiritedness, and income. This, however, is a race-neutral truth. What about dropping entry standards for the poor rather than for ethnic minorities? Bowen and Bok are quite clear that if you want to get black Americans into colleges, you have to target them. The overlap between badly off clever students and African-American clever students is not enough for a race-neutral but class-based form of affirmative action to get enough African-Americans into college.

What, then, if you want to get more badly off students into top universities? Two years ago, only 80 students from unskilled manual backgrounds got three A's at A level. But three A's at A level is the best guide to the class of degree a student will get. If British universities went down the American track, they would have to accept that there would be more students with poor degrees, although they might be optimistic about the future careers of the students who got them. It is also easier to try the experiment in the United States; private institutions are not held publicly to account for their degree results and are more likely to be pilloried for giving out too many A's to their students than for giving too few. In this country, the university league tables concocted by The Times and The Financial Times award more points for handing out "good degrees" with greater abandon.

The new Higher Education Funding Council for England initiative on access might change the English climate in favour of affirmative action, but the punitive approach to management favoured by the Department for Education and Employment is likely to inhibit any such moves by simultaneously insisting on a squaring of the circle - encouraging institutions to take more risky students, while demanding that they reduce the risk to zero. It is not easy to see how we can break out of this trap without rejecting a lot of existing habits, including our obsession with the classified honours degree. At all events, Bowen and Bok provide any interested reader with much food for thought, about race, about the peculiarities of US society, and about the place of higher education in any modern society whatever.

Alan Ryan is warden, New College, Oxford.

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

Author - William G. Bowen and Derek Bok
ISBN - 0 691 004 6
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 472

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