One crude measure that occurs to an economist is, of course, wages,
earnings which measure in a crude but not foolish way, what the market is
willing to pay somebody. And the average earnings of both the men and the
women, African American men and women who graduated from these institutions,
when they were 38 years old, when we surveyed them, extraordinary. Huge jump
up from the average earnings of all Black holders of B.A.s. |
But beyond that, beyond...let me not stop there. Economists are sometimes
tempted to stop there. But, of course, these schools admitted these students
because they thought that they would not only do well for themselves but that
they would contribute to the larger society which, heaven knows, we need. And
when you look at their contributions, their participation involvement,
volunteer activities of every kind, including civic and community activities,
back home if you will. You just find them present in remarkable numbers. In
larger numbers than their white classmates and I think that is a tribute to
them. To their willingness to take on these tasks. But it is also an
indication of what the need has been for minority participation on civic and
community boards, every kind of activity of that kind.
Is there a problem with looking at average SAT scores to determine the
reliability of how much preference is given?
There are so many problems with the SAT emphasis that one hardly knows
where to begin in answering the question. Let me just say first, to make the
most basic point. The schools in our study have never believed that test
scores are the end all and the be all for anybody. And there are large numbers
of students of every race and every background who are being turned down, who
have higher test scores than those who are being admitted. Because the people
doing the admitting realize that there is much more to potential and promise
and ability to contribute both on campus and after campus than ever can be
captured in a test score measure.
So this obsession with test scores is, I think, contrary to the way these
institutions function and have ever functioned. I think that is what people
sometimes lose sight of.
The second point I would make that I think is also basic, is that
admission to college is not a matter of rewarding people for what they have
done up to some point in time. That is what high school graduation is for.
Admission to college is betting on performance, placing bets when you are
investing in human capital. And when you make decisions among very well
qualified applicants... Of course, all the people we are talking about are
over an extremely high threshold. What you have to ask is that if this student,
compared with this student and looked at in the context of the class as a
whole, is going to contribute more to the learning environment on campus and
then has a better chance at making a big contribution to society than some
other students. And the fact that there are significant differences in average
test scores, I think in and of itself tells us little.
Can you talk about merit, and the mission of the
I think merit has to be thought about not as some abstract thing, handed
down from on high that anyone who can count can ascertain. If only that were
that simple. I believe profoundly in admitting on the merit. Absolutely.
Which means there should not be favoritism, that you should be looking at what
individuals can contribute to the school and afterwards.
But does that mean that there is a simple numerical measure of merit? Of
course not. Adlai Stevenson, one of the distinguished graduates of one of the
institutions in the study used to be fond of saying that he was never
threatened by Phi Beta Kappa. No he wasn't? Was he a contributing citizen in
this country? Certainly I think so.
One of the important statistical findings in our study is, while SATs
along with high school grades are helpful in determining who is over threshold,
that is who can do the work and you don't want to admit anyone who can't. But
once you get above some level, let's say about 1100 before the SATs were
recentered, small differences, incremental differences in test scores make
surprisingly little difference in terms of prediction of either success in
college or even more fundamentally, success after college. There is just too
much else going on.
So much depends on personal qualities. On the ability to get up off the
floor and start over. The ability to accept correction and the benefit from
it. Those are traits of character, those are not things that any test scores
are going to measure very well.
Are we just taking a problem and postponing it for four
There are others who will tell you more about life in professional schools
especially than I can, what I can tell you on the basis of a lot of evidence in
the book is that these students are graduating from the very best business,
law, medical schools in extraordinary numbers. And after that they are doing
awfully well. They are doing awfully well not just in monetary terms, but in
terms of service to their community.
As I recall the statistics in the book, something like twice as many Black
doctors as white doctors from this group of students are serving as leaders in
civil and community activities. You know, from my perspective that is
significant. Because that was one of the purposes of this whole enterprise.
We have to keep going back and ask what were they trying to do?
And the answer was that in part we were trying to increase the flow of
very talented minority students in every aspect of American life so they can
contribute and give back. That is what they are doing.
What about the criticism that by admitting students with lower scores
than whites, you are setting them up for failure.
There is this argument, this so-called "fit hypothesis" that we have
somehow harmed the intended beneficiaries of this process by encouraging them
to go to Tufts or Wellesley or Tulane or Yale--whatever the school you want to
choose. An African American student with a test score of, let's say, 1100
where the average for everybody is 1300. And the argument goes--this student
would have been much better off if only he or she had gone to a school where
the average for everybody was 1100, where the student would have fit in
Well the data just completely rebut this hypothesis. There is just
nothing in it. If you compare African American students with 1100 test scores
who went to schools where the average was 1300, with African American students
with 1100 test scores who went to schools where the average was about 1100, the
ones who when to the schools where the average was 1300 just did much better
along any dimension and were more satisfied with their school. They graduated
in higher numbers, more likely to go to graduate and professional
So this notion that we have somehow harmed the intended beneficiaries,
that they are victims in fact, is really nonsense. There is just not an iota
of evidence, certainly in what we have looked at that would support that
Is looking at elite schools misleading?
No. Looking at the most selective schools is precisely what one has to do
if one wants to sort out this debate over race sensitive admissions because it
is in those schools that picking and choosing with race as a factor is a really
Of course, the large majority of institutions in America are not selecting
them. They admit all candidates over some threshold because they have places
for them. And that is terrific. I mean that is one reason why the country has
done so well, is because there is broad-based access to higher education. And
we don't believe for one second that these highly selective schools that we are
studying are, in some sense, nobler, more virtuous. I don't believe that for
Every sector of American higher education contributes and contributes in
very, very important ways. The reason we focus on the academically selective
sector is because these schools are in the center of the debate, as are the
leading graduate and professional schools of law and medicine and business.
Why? Because they have many, many more highly qualified candidates than they
have places and so they have to choose on the basis of some criteria.
And the issue for these schools and the country is race relevant as one
criterion among others within these schools? And if you want to examine that
question, you have to look at those schools.
How much does affirmative action hurt? Talk about the benefits and the
perceived benefits that would have resulted from race blind
Right. One of the complications in this entire discussion is, of course,
that so many wonderfully qualified students of actually all races including
Black students are turned away by schools that would to have them if they had
places. When I was in the President's office, one of the worst aspects of the
job was explaining to extraordinary people, parents, children, why we just
couldn't take them. Not because we wouldn't love to have them but because on
an all things considered basis, we thought that some other set of people would
comprise a class that would advance the interest of the university more
Now, does that satisfy the parent of a disappointed child? Of course not
of course not. And I had to make that speech at the trustees, whose children
were not admitted. So not being admitted is an endemic fact of life in these
schools. Now, of course, because there are so many white students and so many
white applicants relative to Black applicants, there are large numbers of white
applicants who think that they would have had the ten spaces freed up if there
had been no race sensitive admission.
Now, the probability of any one of them gaining that space is, of course,
low. And in fact we estimate that if there were no race sensitive admissions
at all, the probability of being admitted to one of these schools for a white
applicant would go up from like 25% to 26.5%. So quantitatively there is not
much of an impact. But that does not cause me to dismiss the concerns of the
white applicant or of the parents. I mean I think they are genuine. I have
children, I understand this entirely.
But we come back to the point of what is the purpose of the exercise and
the purpose of the exercise is not to reward people for past achievement. Not
to hand out brass rings. But rather to make the best corrective set of bets
you can on the future. That is what admissions is all about. And inevitably
you will disappoint some high achieving people if you have lots of good
Can you talk about the analogy you use in the book regarding the
perception of being disadvantaged by the affirmative action policy.
Well, Tom King used the analogy of the handicap parking space to suggest
that there is a tendency for the disappointed people, the disappointed parkers,
the disappointed applicants to exaggerate their chances of gaining admission,
either to the school or to the parking space. You know, everyone drives around
the parking lot and thinks, ah, only if there were not that space, I would have
been able to park.
And the analogy is helpful in explaining that perception but it is, of
course, also misleading in many ways in that, whereas the handicapped parking
space reserved a space for a person, in these schools race sensitive admissions
does not reserve space. And it is really important to know that we are not
talking about quotas or set asides or anything like that. We are talking about
a probabilistic admission process in which race is considered along with other
Would eliminating the SAT be harmful?
Yes. I think the data in our study and other data indicates that it is
useful as one factor, again, among a host of factors in helping schools decide
especially who is over threshold. It is a helpful measure. It is not perfect
and there are other things to look at, but would I want to through away a
useful piece of information? Certainly not.
What do you think the downside would be?
If we were to throw out the SAT we would, I think, lose one useful
instrument in identifying students of high potential who might otherwise be
missed. Who went to some small school someplace. Who took an odd set of
courses but who, nevertheless, have a lot of talent. And let's remember why
the SAT was invented in the first place.
It was invented in the first place precisely so that the most selective
schools would not rely just on the secondary schools that they knew and on and
on. That it was intended as a way to democratize institutions of higher
education, by alerting the admissions officers of the most competitive schools,
Berkeley and others to the highly qualified who might otherwise be missed. And
so, would I regret losing that tool? Certainly I would regret losing that
Let's talk about the test score gap.
The black/white test score gap, in terms of the test scores that
applicants present is, of course, very important, because in any system in
which test scores play a role, it affects the numbers of students who will be
admitted from difference groups if one looks only at test scores. And so from
that perspective it is inescapable and consequential.
I think that the factors that create the test score gap are still less
well understood than they should be, though much more is being learned about
all of that. And, of course, I agree with those who say, shouldn't we be
working to improve elementary and secondary education so that the preparation
of minority students as well as other students will be stronger and better,
that there will be a bigger pool, if you will.
And the answer to that is, of course we should be doing that. But we
should be doing that, in my view, with our left arm but with our right arm we
are doing the best we can with the pools that we have at present. And what I
think the evidence in our study shows is that knowledgeable admissions offices
can choose among students with somewhat lower test scores, very effectively.
They can choose from within the pools of students with still very good scores
by a national standard, but lower scores for these schools. Those individuals
are likely to do well.
I think one of the more troubling findings in our study is that this gap
in performance is, if anything, greater at the high SAT levels than it is at
the low SAT levels. Contrary to what a lot of the critics seem to
Put another way, removing from the applicant pool or from the accepted
group, those African American students with the lower SAT scores, which I
presume is what some people want us to do, would not address the problem of the
performance gap. The performance gap problems, which is a serious problem,
which we need to work on is more pronounced, if anything at the higher SAT
levels and when we...well, I don't know why that is.
I do agree that there are risks in consideration of race and that
consideration of race can be abused as can consideration of anything else. And
so that is why, at least for me, it is important to combine the flexibility and
the freedom to exercise judgment and to consider race along with other factors
with a clear obligation to be accountable. To look at the results of what you
have done and see if there are results that you can defend and are satisfied
with. And if there are not, then you ought to change your policy.
And if the results of our study had shown, for example, the African
American student admitted to the most selective schools with SATs in, let's
say, the 1100 range were doing poorly, after school especially, in life and in
contributing to society, then I would have said wait a minute. Maybe we are
not following good practices. Let's look again. But that is not what the data
A professor at UCB said Shape of the River is a wonderful book
but it is a eulogy for a fallen hero. What is your response?
Well I have not heard the book described before as a eulogy for a fallen
hero and I don't believe it is. I really don't. As I talk to the Presidents
of Colleges and Universities, of all kinds across the country and to Boards of
Trustees, I sense, if anything, a renewed conviction that these policies make a
lot of sense and that they are the policies we ought to pursue. Nor am I
willing to concede, I just don't think it is going to happen, that the courts
in their ultimate wisdom will conclude that the Bakke Rule was a
Fundamentally, I have too much confidence in the good sense of the
American public to believe that when the full stakes are understood that the
American public is going to want to see leading selective colleges and
universities resegregated, in large measure. I just don't believe that that is
what most people are going to want. And so that is why I remain confident that
in one way or another the wisdom of enrolling diverse student bodies, Hispanics
and African Americans and white candidates together, to live in a world that is
ever more pluralistic, will prevail and that ways will be found to permit that
So I hope that won't happen. I hope people will understand that that kind
of dramatic shift in direction, really it would be in some ways diminishing
hope. It would be a very serious thing for the country at large. For all of
us. For our children.
Is that why you wrote the book? Is Shape of the River an
No. River is not an amicus brief. River is what its forward introduction
says it is. It is an effort to look as clearly as one can at how these
policies have worked at a set of schools that is really quite representative of
the academically selective sector in American higher education. The database
on which it tests, the college and beyond database was not created with this
purpose in mind. It was created to serve a range of scholarly objectives since
those of us who created it thought that we needed to know more about outcomes
in higher education generally.
...admissions policies overwhelming majority of academically selective
schools in the late '60s and early '70s have achieved the two fundamental
objectives that they were intended to achieve.
What were those objectives? First, to enroll a more diverse student body
so that the kind of learning through diversity, through living with, going to
class with individuals who were different from you could operate more
effectively and more fully. This was thought to be important both for the
quality of the educational experience itself and as preparation for people who
were going to go out and live and work in an increasingly pluralistic society.
So improving the educational experience on campus was one major objective.
And this was, of course, the objective that Justice Powell said was entirely
appropriate in his decision in the Bakke case.
One of the most telling findings in the book, I think, is the amount of
support for race sensitive admissions policies that is reported by the white
graduates of these schools who were in the cohorts that we studied. Now 80% of
them or 78%, something like that believe that these policies should either be
maintained or should be strengthened. Only about one in five favor weakening
these policies. Now I think that is eloquent testimony from the white students
who were there and the African American students believe in these policies and
think that they learn from them, as a result of them, even more
What is your response to people who say you are putting far too much
weight on these elite institutions?
I would certainly not suggest for a second, the book doesn't
suggest that these students would have somehow been driven to oblivion in the
absence of these policies. That is crazy. That is nonsense. But it also is
true that going to the most selective schools, not only at the undergraduate
level, but certainly at the professional level increases ones chances of going
on and doing a great many things in life. Many of which are important to the
public at large as well as to the individuals and so I don't see a case for
excluding the most talented minority students, or large numbers of them, from
access to what, at least many people think, are exceptionally good educational
But there is also a second point. The second point is, that if you were
to exclude, in effect, significant numbers of minority students from leading
colleges and universities, you would harm not only those students and what they
can contribute, but their white classmates. I mean this line of argument that
it doesn't really matter if they don't go to Yale because they will go
somewhere else, somehow forgets of ignores the effect of diversity at Yale on
the educational experience at Yale, for everyone. And that is a big thing to
ignore or forget. It is a critical thing to ignore or forget.
And the book contains so many vignettes that tell us in moving language
how much learning occurred for both Blacks and whites from the kinds of
exchanges that diversity permitted. I lived through, on the Princeton campus,
searing debates over South Africa and whether divestment was an appropriate
response to apartheid. I was a staunch opponent of divestment, to the
aggravation of the more liberal elements in the students and the faculty. But
that isn't the point.
The point is that, that kind of searing debate had enormous educational
value. Enormous educational value. The students who were Black and who saw
South Africa in a certain way, the student who were white may have seen it
quite differently. Did that produce learning that would have been diminished
had there not been substantial African American presence? For sure.
What would you say to someone like Sheryl Hopwood when she turns and
says, "Look, I was poor and I worked hard all my life and here I get a certain
score and someone who gets a lower score was admitted."
What I say to Sheryl Hopwood or to any disappointed white applicant is
that I understand your disappointment. I really do, and if there were more
places for a well-qualified candidate, we would have been happy to have you as
many of the minority candidates who were also disappointed and turned away.
But the fact is, very hard choices have to be made in the admission
process. And they have to be made not on the basis of who has achieved a
certain test score result at this point in their lives, but on the basis of
which set of applicants will really contribute most to the quality of education
at this institution and to the larger purposes for American society, to the
need of the society for diverse leadership that have got to be taken into
The purpose of admissions is not to confer rewards, not to distribute
goodies. It is, rather, to advance broad social objectives. The very
objectives that have been used since the beginning to justify public support
for these schools. To justify tax exemption because they are thought to serve
purposes that are important in a democracy. I believe that they do.
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