Since the late 1960’s, leading American colleges and universities have used racial and ethnic criteria to select a significant fraction of their entering classes. And since the late 1960’s, increasingly vocal objections have been raised to such policies on grounds of moral and constitutional principle. Until fairly recently, however, relatively little was known about how the process actually worked. Exactly how much weight was given to racial and ethnic considerations in the admissions process? The official line was, not much—but no data were ever provided. What happened to preferentially-admitted students during and after their college years? No one would ever say. Although university and college officials aggressively defended their policies, they did so on the basis of assertion and without supporting facts, or at least without facts they would publicly release.

The ability to keep the files under lock and key began to come to an end, however, with the Hop-wood litigation that resulted in the 1996 finding by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the law school at the University of Texas had engaged in racial discrimination against whites; with the fight in California that ended in the passage of Proposition 209, forbidding racial preferences in higher education; with a similar initiative in the state of Washington; and with a number of freedom-of-information-act lawsuits. Tantalizing fragments of evidence have trickled out, all suggesting that the weight given to racial and ethnic considerations was in fact extremely substantial, amounting in most cases to a flagrant double standard.

The result is that, today, advocates of preferences have been thrown somewhat on the defensive, and a subtle shift has occurred in their rhetoric. They still insist the policy is just, but increasingly they have come to clinch their case with the trumping argument that it is effective. Black students deserve preferences, and they prove their deserts by doing well academically, by going on to successful careers, and by becoming, in the words of a recent study, “the backbone of the emergent black middle class.” From this there follows a warning: efforts to dismantle preferential policies will result in severe setbacks for American blacks and hence for the cause of racial and social harmony.

The study that makes this point most vehemently, and from which we have just quoted, is The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions1 This book is best understood as a high-level effort to stem the tide of Hopwood and Proposition 209. Its authors, William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, certainly cannot complain that their work has been neglected. Although written in gray bureaucratic prose, and crammed with 147 tables and graphs, The Shape of the River was an instant news event, hailed by editorial writers and columnists in leading newspapers and magazines as well as by CBS, CNN, and National Public Radio. The New York Times, not content with running a full-page story and reprinting excerpts from the work itself, also ringingly endorsed its conclusions in an editorial claiming that the study “provides striking confirmation of the success of affirmative action in opening opportunities and creating a whole generation of black professionals.”

But that, indeed, is the question.



If you are inclined to believe that policies are best evaluated by those who design and implement them, William Bowen and Derek Bok are superbly qualified for the task they set themselves. Bowen was provost at Princeton University from 1967 to 1972 and then president until 1988, when he became head of the Mellon Foundation. Bok was dean of the Harvard law school from 1968 to 1971 and then president of Harvard University for twenty years. In The Shape of the River, the two men are thus assessing initiatives for which they, more than anyone else at their respective institutions, were responsible.

In an important sense, they are also assessing their own legacies as leaders of American higher education. For what if the evidence they set out to examine were to reveal that preferential admissions policies had not achieved their objectives, or even had had unanticipated negative consequences? One might then legitimately ask why Bowen and Bok had buried their heads in the sand for so long—or why, in the many years they had spent in charge of two fabulously wealthy universities, neither had commissioned a careful analysis of what was happening on his watch. But no matter. Although the authors say they “were far from certain what the data would reveal” when they began their study, what the data revealed in the end was their own wisdom in having “worked hard, over more than three decades, to enroll and educate more diverse student bodies.”

The data themselves mainly concern the academic performance of approximately 30,000 students who entered one of 28 leading colleges and universities in 1976, and another 32,000 who began their studies in 1989. Of the 28 institutions, 24 were private. The authors divide the schools into three levels of selectivity (called SEL-1, -2, and -3) on the basis of the mean combined SAT scores of their matriculants, with institutions like Princeton, Stanford, Williams, and Yale at the top, places like Columbia, Northwestern, Penn, and Tufts at SEL-2, and, at SEL-3, mainly public schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Pennsylvania State, and Miami University of Ohio. Much of their analysis is based upon detailed records from just five of these 28 schools, all five of them private.

No doubt for reasons of delicacy, Bowen and Bok eschew the term “preferences.” They speak, instead, of “racially-sensitive” admissions policies—policies, they assure us, that take into account a great many factors in addition to race and result in the acceptance of minority students who come well-qualified for academic work. Their data, they claim, show that such preferentially-admitted students do indeed succeed in school; most of them stick it out for four years and collect their diplomas, and an impressive proportion go on to do graduate work and to enter well-paying occupations. They also become unusually active in civic affairs, playing key leadership roles both within the black community and in the larger society.

Especially gratifying to the authors are two additional findings: that the beneficiaries of “racially-sensitive” policies do not feel stigmatized by the special circumstances of their admission, and that these policies have a highly positive effect on all students, as shown by the number with friendships across racial lines and the high level of white support for “diversity” in university life.



Let us consider these claims one by one.

It is, to begin with, well established that the SAT scores of black students admitted to many selective colleges and universities are often 200 or more points below those of whites and Asians who are accepted. What this means in practice is that, in any given bracket, blacks will enjoy a significant leg up. Thus, among 1989 applicants to the five private schools studied intensively by Bowen and Bok, only 19 percent of whites with combined SAT scores from 1200 to 1249 were admitted, as against 60 percent of blacks with similar scores; in the next bracket up (1250-1299), 24 percent of whites but 75 percent of blacks were accepted. In these two brackets, then, the black acceptance rate was triple that for whites. In the 1500-or-better category, over a third of whites were turned down while every single black applicant got in.

According to Bowen and Bok, what should impress us about these numbers is not the stark interracial disproportion they disclose but the fact that, in any single category, neither all the whites nor all the blacks were accepted. For them, this proves that many factors entered into the admissions decisions; race was not the whole story. Of course, what it really proves is just the opposite: race was of overwhelming importance. There is no other explanation for the fact that black applicants with scores around 1200 were nearly as likely to be accepted at Bowen and Bok’s five institutions as whites with scores of 1500 or better.

In order to bolster their claim that black students admitted to elite institutions in 1989 had “strong academic credentials,” Bowen and Bok make another specious point: their SAT scores were slightly higher than the average for all students who enrolled in these schools in 1951. But as Bowen and Bok have ample reason to know, elite colleges in 1951 drew their students from a limited social stratum and had much lower admissions standards. Today, the criteria have changed all around. No track coach today would pursue a high-school miler just because he would have made the varsity in 1951, and only a racial double standard would lead an admissions officer to settle for that era’s academic credentials.

Equally strained is still another argument advanced by Bowen and Bok—that three-quarters of the blacks applying to the five selective schools in 1989 scored higher on the SAT than the national average for all white test-takers. That may be so, but the typical white applicant to the five schools in question had scores far above the national average—in the top 8 percent of all test-takers in the verbal part of the SAT and in the top 9 percent in math. As for those actually accepted, they ranked in the top 3-4 percent. When black students with SAT’s at the 75th percentile get into schools where the average white or Asian is in the 96th percentile or higher, the special “qualification” that makes the difference is race.

In sum, Bowen and Bok’s own data powerfully reinforce the point that “racially-sensitive” admissions involve very dramatic racial double standards. If they did not, the authors would not have to bewail the calamitous consequences they see ensuing from a truly race-blind process. For in one thing Bowen and Bok are certainly correct: removing race as a factor would make a big difference at their 28 elite colleges, and especially at the very top. According to their own estimates, if students had been admitted in 1989 on a race-neutral basis, black enrollment at the first-tier schools would have declined by 73 percent, at the second-tier schools by 52 percent, and at the third-tier schools by 32 percent.

To be sure, these calculations exaggerate somewhat. They assume that test scores are the only variable in admissions, and that is never the case. All institutions of higher learning give some edge to applicants from deprived socioeconomic circumstances, and also apply lower standards for varsity athletes. Both these factors might work to the advantage of lower-scoring African-Americans, thus incidentally leaving in place a racial gap in average SAT scores. Still, uniform academic criteria would unquestionably mean a substantial decline in black admissions at very selective schools (though little or none at institutions with lower requirements).

But that, of course, is precisely what critics of preferences have always maintained: preferences really are preferential.



Once admitted, how well do the beneficiaries of racial double standards perform? Bowen and Bok see nothing “disappointing.” In their designated schools, almost eight out of ten graduated—double the national average for blacks. At the elite institutions within this elite, nearly nine out of ten collected their diplomas.

At first glance, this does seem to raise serious questions about the theory advanced by critics of preferences—like us—concerning the damaging effects of the “mismatch” between preferential admittees and their peers. But only at first glance. The elite schools, in general, show very impressive overall graduation rates, perhaps because the higher you go in the academic hierarchy, the easier the grading. In most first-level schools, what was an F a generation ago is now a C or even a B-minus. At Stanford, the average grade these days is said to be A-minus! What is more, the most prestigious schools, which are also the wealthiest, have the greatest resources for tutoring and counseling.

In addition, the black students attending such schools come from relatively well-educated and affluent families. Although Bowen and Bok scarcely mention it, 64 percent of the African-Americans in their study had at least one parent who graduated from college (among all black youths of college age, the comparable figure is 11 percent), and only a fifth came from families with incomes of less than $22,000 (nationally, half of all African-Americans of college age fall into this category). Colleges like Princeton and Yale admit an even more advantaged element of the black population, and it stands to reason that such privileged youngsters will graduate at much higher rates than their less affluent peers.

Finally, looking at graduation rates exclusively, as Bowen and Bok do, tells only one part of the story. If we examine the other side of the coin, dropout rates, the picture changes dramatically. Thus, in the authors’ 1989 sample, only 6.3 percent of the whites but 20.8 percent of the blacks failed to get a bachelor’s degree (from any school). In other words, the black dropout rate from elite schools was 3.3 times the white rate, a much larger differential than the national gap between all black and white dropouts. Furthermore, this racial difference increases with the selectivity of the school: the black-to-white dropout ratio was considerably higher at the top schools than at the second- and third-tier schools.

To focus on the graduation numbers and ignore the dropout picture is like looking at black male employment rather than at black male unemployment. The former figures look pretty good—the racial gap stands at about five percentage points—but black men are two-and-a-half times more likely to be jobless than white men. Just as black unemployment is one of our most important social problems, so the dropout numbers alert us to an educational problem we ignore at our peril.



If Bowen and Bok make much of graduation rates and nothing of dropout rates, they also downplay actual classroom performance. Nevertheless, they do admit a startling fact: the cumulative grade-point average of the African-American students at their 28 schools puts them at the 23rd percentile (i.e., in the bottom quarter) of their class.

Even that figure is deceptively rosy. If Bowen and Bok had differentiated between black students admitted regularly and those admitted preferentially, they would likely have found the beneficiaries of preferences doing even worse. As it is, we are not told how many black students made it into the top quarter or the top tenth of their class, how many graduated with honors, or how many made Phi Beta Kappa; in a book stuffed with numbers, the authors turn coy exactly when information is most needed. But if the mean is at the 23rd percentile, not many could have been near the top.

Nor do Bowen and Bok ask whether badly prepared black students show any signs of catching up with their peers over the course of their four years, as proponents of preferences have often claimed they do. Does the stimulating environment of a topflight school make up for years of inadequate preparation? According to an important recent study by Rogers Elliot and others, no “late-bloomer” effect can be discerned at such schools, no tendency toward convergence in black and white GPA’s; but Elliot’s study is ignored by Bowen and Bok.

Given the disparity in grade-point averages, it would hardly be surprising to learn that black students with relatively poor academic records feel stigmatized. But Bowen and Bok dismiss this problem, too. According to their survey, most blacks at the 28 colleges reported feeling “satisfied” or “very satisfied.” But it is a very long leap from the question asked to the conclusions drawn. Anyone truly interested in the issue of stigmatization would need to ask much more refined and subtle questions than the flat-footed ones posed by Bowen and Bok. Even then, honest answers would be hard to come by, especially in the case of schools as pleasant as these to attend and of students as fortunate as these to have been accepted at them.

Once again, though, a hint of the real picture emerges from a statistic in The Shape of the River itself. Crediting “diversity” with bringing about an impressively high number of interracial friendships, Bowen and Bok adduce the fact that 56 percent of whites in the 1989 cohort said they knew two or more black classmates “well”; moreover, the number of interracial friendships rises modestly with the selectivity of the school. What they neglect to tell us is the proportion of college students generally who have friends of another race—and, more tellingly, how their figures compare with those for black-white friendships in American society at large.

As we pointed out in America in Black and White, those figures have risen spectacularly over the past three decades. Fully 86 percent of all white adults in a 1997 national survey said they had black friends, and 73 percent of those surveyed in 1994 said that they had “good friends” who were African-American. By these standards, the elite schools are hardly in the proud vanguard of progress. To the contrary, they are lagging woefully behind.

A proper subject of inquiry is why this should be so. Might it—the hypothesis is irresistible—have something to do with the discriminatory standards by which blacks are admitted to elite schools?



The final two items in our catalogue have to do with the post-collegiate careers of the students in Bowen and Bok’s sample. Many, they claim, go on to “top-rated professional schools.” Graduate training or no, moreover, their elite cohort now forms the “backbone” of the expanding black middle class.

According to Bowen and Bok, some 40 percent of the black graduates of their 28 schools obtained professional or doctoral degrees, a figure slightly higher than the figure for whites from the same schools and dramatically higher than the 8 percent for all black college graduates. Furthermore, blacks from elite colleges were far more likely than their white classmates to attend the most prestigious law, medical, and business schools.

None of this is in the least surprising. It is, rather, still further evidence of the extent to which race-conscious admissions policies at the undergraduate level are carried over in race-conscious admissions policies at the graduate level. In her recent study of students who began law school in 1991, Linda F. Wightman estimated that, if the decision had been made purely on the basis of college grades and LSAT scores, a total of just 24 African-Americans would have been admitted that year to one of the eighteen best law schools—a school, that is, in the top 10 percent in the nation. Instead, 420 black students got in. These elite law schools, in other words, had to put an even heavier thumb on the scale than did the Yales, Dukes, and Stanfords that are supposedly doing such an effective job of training black undergraduates.

Anyone familiar with the law-school scene today knows, moreover, that disproportionate numbers of black graduates fail the bar examinations, which are of course graded on a color-blind basis. Not a word about bar exams appears in The Shape of the River, even though it is the chief focus of the Wightman study (cited repeatedly by the authors). For the record, Wightman found that more than a fifth of black law students who owed their admission to racial preferences failed to graduate; even worse, 27 percent of those who got through law school were unable to pass a bar exam within three years, a failure rate nearly triple that for blacks who were admitted under regular standards, and almost seven times the white failure rate.2



Even less persuasive, and even more demagogic, is Bowen and Bok’s reading of the evidence on black economic advancement. Without race-conscious policies at the elite universities, they warn, there would be no black middle class. This, too, is nonsense.

For one thing, the numbers simply do not add up. Only 13,784 African-Americans were among the 300,000-plus students who entered any SEL-1, -2, or -3 four-year college in the United States in 1976. It can be estimated that just 8,800 of these actually graduated, some portion of whom would have been admitted to these schools without any racial preferences. A group so minuscule could hardly form the “backbone” of a black middle class that by any reasonable definition includes more than ten million people.

Nor is it correct that, without the elite schools, the black middle class would shrivel away. As we pointed out earlier, the authors’ own evidence shows clearly that these schools are educating young men and women who were born into that class (among the 1989 black enrollees, only 14 percent came from low-income families). They may typically attain higher socioeconomic status than their parents, but it was their parents who made it into the middle class in the first place, and very few of them did so by attending an elite school.

This last is a crucial point. In an early chapter, Bowen and Bok chronicle some of the social and economic progress made by blacks since World War II—much of it (they fail to note) prior to the institution of preferential policies. To assume that preferences account for subsequent gains is to commit the classic fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Once again the evidence tells a different story.

The number of African-Americans in Congress, boast Bowen and Bok, rose from 4 to 41 between 1965 and 1995. This is a remarkable shift; but less than a fifth of the congressional black caucus in 1995 had attended an elite institution. Nor is this an isolated example. In a list of the top 50 black federal officials recently compiled by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, only a handful had gone to an elite school. Similarly with black officers in the U.S. Army, and similarly, too, with the 44 black winners of MacArthur Foundation “genius” awards between 1981 and 1998, three-quarters of whom attended institutions that were basically nonselective. Although studies of the educational background of black business leaders are unavailable, it is hard to believe the picture there would be any different.

Particularly egregious in this connection is Bowen and Bok’s failure—disinclination?—to look closely at the data from historically black colleges. The original material collected for their study included records from Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Xavier University of Louisiana. These four institutions alone, among the best of the nation’s several dozen black colleges and universities, present intriguing analytical possibilities unexplored by the authors.

The four are not very selective by national standards. They accept a majority of their applicants, who in turn have median SAT scores at or only slightly above the national average. But some of the young men and women who choose to be educated at a place like Howard or Morehouse have qualifications very much like those of their contemporaries who get into a place like Duke or Michigan. It would be interesting to know whether they derive a real benefit from attending a school at which their academic skills are about average for their class rather than far below. Is it merely coincidental that historically black colleges, which account for only a sixth of total black college enrollment, produced 43 percent of the 1995 congressional black caucus, 39 percent of the black officers in the U.S. Army according to a 1996 survey, and fully a quarter of black MacArthur “genius” grantees in the last two decades? Or that, of the ten undergraduate institutions responsible for the greatest number of blacks who went on to earn Ph.D’s in the years 1992-96, nine were black colleges?

One early graduate of Morehouse College was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Bowen and Bok mention him—but not his college—to support their argument that quantitative measures of academic skills are of limited help in predicting “which applicants will contribute most in later life to their professions and their communities.” Despite having scored in the bottom half of all test-takers on the verbal portion of the Graduate Records Examination, Dr. King, they write, became “one of the great orators of this century.” Yes, he did. But what is the lesson? If a regime of preferences and academic double standards had been established a few decades earlier, an underqualified Martin Luther King, Jr. might well have been admitted to Princeton and then to the Yale Divinity School. Would this have been better for him? For us? Only someone besotted with the inestimable worth of a Princeton or Yale degree can imagine that the answer is necessarily yes.



The central issue explored in The Shape of the River is whether racially-preferential policies “work.” The authors are convinced they do; the evidence suggests otherwise—unless by “work” we mean only that, whatever their consequences, these policies do indeed extend a benefit to one group at the expense of others. By this criterion, however, many a policy has “worked.” When the colleges and universities of the South refused to admit any black students, no matter how qualified, that, too, “worked”: the institutions remained all-white. The same can be said of the “religiously-sensitive” admissions policies that prevailed at Princeton, Harvard, and other schools that once had Jewish quotas; they certainly succeeded in keeping the number of Jewish students dramatically down.

But that brings us to the exceedingly perverse moral calculus that underlies Bowen and Bok’s defense of racial preferences. They believe fervently injustice Blackmun’s dictum (in the 1978 Bakke decision) that “in order to get beyond racism, we must first take race into account.” Thus, they see no problem if, for the sake of “diversity,” a school that “needs” more black students accepts less-qualified blacks while turning down better-qualified whites and Asians. The assumption that it is morally legitimate to distribute benefits to individuals on the basis of ascribed group characteristics goes unquestioned.

Moreover, they do not say how much “diversity” is enough. African-Americans were just 6.7 percent of the students entering Bowen and Bok’s elite colleges in 1989, or barely half the “share” they represented in that year’s high-school graduating class. In other words, by national standards, blacks remained woefully underrepresented. Why then are Bowen and Bok content with today’s racial mix? Since they appear to believe that students with SAT’s under 1,000 can do perfectly well at the most selective colleges in America, why do they not criticize the schools in their study for rejecting four out of five black applicants with such low scores?

And what about the harm done to others? Bowen and Bok argue that racial preferences have only the slightest negative effect on any individual white. The gains are concentrated on a group small enough to feel the boost; the costs are paid by a group so large as to render the pain trivial for any one of its members. White resentment, they claim, is like the annoyance many drivers feel at parking spots reserved for the handicapped. Just as those spaces keep very few of the able-bodied from the choice spots in front of stores, so too only a few whites are kept out of Yale on account of racial preferences.

Quite apart from their troubling analogy between black students and the “crippled,” it is not only whites who are excluded when blacks are admitted to schools by racial preferences. Throughout this book, Bowen and Bok avoid almost any mention of Asians, a group that makes up less than 4 percent of the U.S. population but, without the benefit of double standards, already forms a vital presence on elite campuses. If preferences were to end, the Asian presence would undoubtedly grow larger—as it has already done after race-neutral admissions went into effect at the University of California. Is it fair to keep Asians back in order to benefit blacks, a group that, as it happens, outnumbers them three-to-one in American society?

In fact, the authors’ argument can be used to defend any policy that benefits a specific collectivity at the expense of some arbitrarily defined majority. Six out of seven elementary-school teachers today are women. If, in order to get more male role models in the classroom, we were to cut the salaries of each female teacher by 10 percent and give the money in the form of bonuses to men, the pain felt by any individual woman would undoubtedly be less than the pleasure each man would get from his bigger salary. The same logic would also, absurdly, justify policies benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor—a comparatively very large group among whom the costs would be very widely dispersed.

But, of course, it does not matter a bit whether the class being discriminated against is a narrow or a broad one; it is individuals who suffer from discriminatory treatment. Americans used to know this, and it is particularly disquieting to hear otherwise from, among others, a former president of Princeton, a school that enrolled very few Jews and no blacks until long after most of the Ivies had opened their doors wide to members of both groups.



For a generation now, preferences in higher education have served as a pernicious palliative, deflecting our attention from the real problem: the yawning racial gap in educational performance among elementary- and secondary-school pupils. As long as the average black high-school senior reads at the eighth-grade level, efforts to engineer parity in college, let alone in the legal and medical professions, are doomed to failure. Worse, such efforts perpetuate (when they do not deepen) the very stereotypes they are professedly designed to eradicate. If they can be said to “work” at all, it is only as a pretense: the universities pretend to be redressing historic inequities, the beneficiaries of their patronizing largesse pretend to be competing on an equal footing.

The damage done by this destructive arrangement has, haltingly and at long last, come to be confronted by the courts and by the voters. It would be the ultimate irony if its last defenders turned out to be the self-appointed guardians of intellectual and moral standards in American life.


1 Princeton University Press, 384 pp., $24.95.

2 See Stephan Thernstrom’s “The Scandal of the Law Schools,” in the December 1997 COMMENTARY.


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