Study challenges theory on affirmative action Ex-university presidents track benefits to whites and blacks over 20 years

September 09, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A major new study of the records and experiences of tens of thousands of students over 20 years at some of the top U.S. colleges and universities concludes that affirmative action policies created the backbone of the black middle class and taught young whites the value of integration.

The study, which challenges much of the conservative thinking about affirmative action, is to be released today by Princeton University Press in a book: "The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions."

It was written by two former Ivy League presidents, William Bowen of Princeton University, an economist, and Derek Bok of Harvard University, a political scientist.

Examining grades, test scores, choice of major, graduation rates, careers and attitudes of 45,000 students at 28 of the most selective schools, the authors say that although they are both advocates of race-conscious admissions policies, they wanted to test the assumptions underlying them.

They say their work should put to rest major objections to such policies, especially that both whites and blacks are ultimately cheated by them.

With its rich database and carefully calibrated tone, the study will most likely lead the charge in a liberal counteroffensive to recast the debate over affirmative action, which in the past two years has been rolled back in California and Texas and is challenged in Michigan and Washington.

The counteroffensive, involving books, articles and academic conferences, seeks to broaden the notion of "merit" beyond tests and grades and hails affirmative action less as a means of overcoming past discrimination -- an older argument with decreasing political support -- and more as a way to ensure a healthier future for whites and blacks.

Among the other new studies are "Chilling Admissions: The Affirmative Action Crisis and the Search for Alternatives," published by the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University, and "The Black-White Test Score Gap" from the Brookings Institution.

The Bowen-Bok study limits itself to the practice of race-conscious admissions in elite higher education; that is, to considering the race of applicants to be a critical factor in whether they should be admitted, as important as, say, their region of origin or their extracurricular activities.

The study begins by documenting the problem clearly: Blacks who enter elite institutions do so with lower test scores and grades than whites. As they work their way through such liberal arts colleges as Yale and Princeton and state schools such as the universities of Michigan and North Carolina, blacks receive lower grades and graduate at a lower rate.

But after graduation, the survey found, these students achieve notable successes. They earn advanced degrees at rates identical to those of their white classmates. They are even slightly more likely than whites from the same institutions to obtain professional degrees in law, business and medicine. And they become more active than their white classmates in civic and community activities.

The authors call black graduates of elite institutions "the backbone of the emergent black middle class" and say that their influence extends well beyond the workplace. "They can serve as strong threads in a fabric that binds their own community together and binds those communities into the larger social fabric as well."

One of the most striking findings is how much an elite college education serves as a pathway to success for all races. Blacks who graduate from elite colleges earn 70 percent to 85 percent more than do black graduates overall.

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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