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The River Running Through College Admissions. – Review – book reviews

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. (In my opinion, unemployment and poverty cause stigma,
not an opportunity to attend college.)

But, the Black students who were surveyed in the College and Beyond
study that Bowen and Bok used to develop their work did not seem to
think they were stigmatized because they were beneficiaries of
affirmative action. Indeed, 75 percent of those in the class of 1989
who scored over 1300 on their SATs — the ablest African Americans in
the sample — felt that colleges should “place a great deal of
emphasis” on racial diversity.

Additionally, those in the upper third of their college graduating
class were “very satisfied” with their campus experience. Only 1
percent said they were dissatisfied, again suggesting that the stigma
that Thomas and others have asserted is more wishful thinking than

While the Bowen and Bok book supports using race as a factor in
college admissions, the book is not a ringing endorsement of
affirmative action. It takes a balanced view, considers some of the
arguments against affirmative action, and analyzes some of the
substitutes to affirmative action that have been offered.

The authors find that class-based affirmative action would reduce
the number of African American students attending college. They also
say that admitting the top 10 percent of high school graduating
classes, as is the case in Texas, “is unlikely to be an effective
substitute for race-sensitive admissions policies.”

As I read both the Bowen and Bok book, and the report recently
released by the President’s Advisory Commission on Race, I was struck
by the fact that there is so much yet to be done to eradicate racism
and move us to a more multicultural society. As the Supreme Court
opened on October 5, for example, the NAACP was outside protesting the
paucity of law clerks of color that have been hired by the justices.
Although Bowen and Bok show that more and more African Americans are
attending law school, the myopic court somehow cannot find “qualified”
law clerks.

And the Congress is no better. Many members do not have a single person of color on their staff.

A contemporary view of race relations is necessarily kaleidoscopic.
On one hand, there is the solid evidence presented by Bowen and Bok
that affirmative action works; on the other hand, there is the racist
and myopic proposal by Congressman Frank Riggs (R-Calif.), who does not
want federal dollars to be spent on any campus that has race-sensitive
admissions policies.

Read the Bok and Bowen book. It will make you think about what we
have done about race, and what we need to do to provide educational
opportunity in the future.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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