Affirmative action helps in college and society

September 28, 1998|By William G. Bowen and Derek Bok

IN HIS classic study of Wall Street lawyers in the 1960s, Erwin Smigel reports that "I only heard of three Negroes who had been hired by large law firms. Two of these were women who did not meet the client." Smigel's statement is not surprising.

In the 1960s, few leading professional schools or nationally prominent colleges and universities enrolled more than a handful of minority students. In the late 1960s, however, colleges and universities began to change these statistics, not by establishing quotas, but by considering race, along with many other factors, in deciding whom to admit.

This policy was adopted because of a widely shared conviction that it was simply wrong for overwhelming numbers of minorities to continue holding routine jobs while almost all influential positions were held by whites. Educators also considered it vital to create a more diverse learning environment to prepare students of all races to live and work in a multiracial society.

In recent years, race-sensitive admissions policies have been vigorously contested. Surprisingly, however, there has been little hard evidence of how these policies work and what their consequences have been. To remedy this deficiency, we examined the college and later-life experiences of tens of thousands of black and white students who entered 28 selective colleges and universities in the fall of 1976 and the fall of 1989. What did we discover?

Compared with their extremely high-achieving white classmates, blacks in general received somewhat lower college grades and graduated at moderately lower rates. Still, 75 percent graduated within six years, a figure well above the 40 percent of blacks and 59 percent of whites who graduated from all Division I NCAA schools. More than 90 percent of both blacks and whites in our survey were satisfied or very satisfied with their college experience, and blacks were even more inclined than whites to credit their undergraduate experience with helping them learn crucial skills.

Although more than half the black students attending these schools would have been rejected under a race-neutral admissions regime, they have done exceedingly well after college. A remarkable 40 percent of black graduates who entered these selective colleges in 1976 went on to earn doctorates or professional degrees in law, business and medicine. This figure is slightly higher than that for their white classmates and five times higher than that for all black graduates overall.

By the time of our survey, black male graduates who had entered these schools in 1976, though typically under age 40, were earning an average of $85,000, 82 percent more than other black male college graduates overall. Their black female classmates earned 73 percent more than all black women graduates nationwide.

But these black graduates' influence extends beyond the workplace. In virtually every type of civic activity -- from social service organizations to parent-teacher associations -- black men were more likely than their white male classmates to occupy leadership positions.

(Latinos and other minority groups also appear to have done well, but too few entered in 1976 to permit an equally detailed analysis.)

Were black students demoralized by competing with whites possessing higher high school grades and test scores? Is it true, as conservative scholar and author Dinesh D'Souza asserts, that "American universities are quite willing to sacrifice the future happiness of many young blacks and Hispanics to achieve diversity, proportional representation and what they consider to be multiracial progress"?

Successful experience

The facts are very clear on this point. Among blacks with similar test scores, the more selective the college they attend, (that is, the higher the test scores of their classmates), the likelier they are to graduate, earn advanced degrees and receive high salaries. Far from being demoralized, blacks from the most selective schools are the most satisfied with their college experience.

How much does diversity add to the learning experience? Have blacks and whites learned to get along better or has diversity resulted in self-segregation and greater tension? Undoubtedly, blacks often spend time together (as do hockey players, campus newspaper editors and other student groups).

But much interaction also occurs. Eighty-eight percent of blacks who entered selective colleges in 1989 report having known well two or more white classmates, while 56 percent of their white classmates say that they knew at least two black classmates well. How many older Americans can make that claim?

Looking back, large majorities of blacks, whites and Latinos believe that their college experience contributed much to their ability to live and work with members of other races. Almost 80 percent of the white graduates favor retaining their school's current emphasis on diversity or emphasizing it even more.

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