secrets of the sat
photo of derek bok
Derek Bok: He is a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and  co-author of The Shape of the River. He is  former president of Harvard University and  former dean of the Harvard Law School.
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Critics are saying that affirmative action didn't work. I take it this is not what you found in your book.

No, what they were saying until our book was published was that we were actually harming the victim because in the first place, we were putting unqualified students into academic environments where they could not succeed. And those that managed to get through somehow would be stigmatized and therefore harmed in their later life.

What the public hasn't worked through yet, partly because we haven't done a very good job of giving them the facts--they haven't worked through the fact that you cannot really have a racially diverse student body without taking race into consideration in the admissions process. I think those arguments are simply demonstrably false on the facts. I think our data show pretty well that the more challenging the academic environment is in which minority students perform -- within reason, assuming they're well selected -- the better they do, the more they graduate, the more they appreciate the experience, the more advanced degrees they get, the higher salaries that they earn.

And as far as stigma is concerned, the differential between blacks and whites is considerably smaller for the students who've gone to selective schools with race sensitive policies. If they were stigmatized, you would think that the salary differential would be higher. That's exactly not what occurs.

So, I think the arguments that were being used until our study came out simply turn out--when you get all the facts--to be wrong

What about the further criticism--that you make it sound like it's "Yale or jail" if one doesn't get accepted at the top universities and colleges.

I don't think the alternative to Yale is jail by any means. On the other hand, there is a mass of research that does show that there are real advantages to your subsequent career in going to selective institutions.

If that were not true, the Thernstroms and Mr. Trow would not be raising these arguments. People wouldn't be bringing suit. No one would care. It is because it's pretty demonstrable that you have real advantages, as our book points out statistically, in terms of earnings, graduate degrees, various other things in going to these schools that creates the issue in the first place.

What is the difference?

Well, because the distribution of SAT scores is such that whether you are taking race into consideration or not, there will be a difference between the scores of blacks and whites. So, one statistic that even surprised me and I suppose will surprise a number of viewers, is that the difference in the scores of black and white students is almost as large in the bottom 20% of institutions with the lowest scores, where everybody is admitted and there's no question of preferential admissions, as it is in the top 20%, which is where all the race sensitive preference exists.

And that's simply because blacks are much less represented in the higher scores and much more represented in the lower scores, so that even if you take every student who scores over 600, and therefore you're treating everyone, in a sense, equally, you will end up with blacks having significantly lower scores than whites because, for all the students over 600, there are just more whites with exceptionally high scores than there are blacks and that bring their average up.

It's very much as though if you took only students of either sex, you had no discrimination in gender, you took students of both men and women above 6 feet tall, you would still find that the average woman was considerably shorter than the average man, even though you used exactly the same cutoff. It's very much the same principle with respect to race.

Even though they're all choosing on the merits, the reason is that they have different purposes and that gives them different criteria. Now, if you understand what the purposes of selective universities are, I think you see very quickly why it's fair to put weight on race. One of the purposes is to educate students for an increasing diverse society by allowing them to study in an environment where they live and work together with different races, which is something that our study shows the students themselves value very highly. That's one purpose. To achieve that purpose, you need to make sure you have a diverse student body.

The second thing that we're trying to do is to respond to a need which is proclaimed all the time in the outside society for more minority representation among business executives, doctors, lawyers, other professions and positions of influence in the society.

You can look at the American Bar Association Journal, you can look at the American Medical Association, you can look at how presidents of both parties choose their cabinets. They're all saying we want a more representative group in these positions.

Now, to do that, you've got to have a pool of well-qualified, well- prepared candidates, so universities are doing what they've done for hundreds of years. The are trying not only to get a diverse student body, they're also trying to get a student body of people who have a contribution to make as leaders and in the different professions in their communities.

And to do that, in today's world, with this great demand being expressed for well-prepared minorities. Race becomes a relevant consideration because there are exceptional opportunities for minorities, because they're in such short supply, to move into these professions and positions where they are being asked for by society.

Some people are saying 'we don't want race as a consideration.'

I think it's one of the supreme ironies that we should say, in order to avoid the evils of slavery, we are now going to abolish a policy that finally begins to open up influential positions in society to people of color.

I don't particularly credit that argument. I think as far as the public is concerned--if you ask the public, 'Do you want students chosen for college with race as a significant factor?' they will say no. If you ask the public, 'Do you want and believe in the value of a racially diverse student body?'equally high majorities will say yes.

What the public hasn't worked through yet, partly because we haven't done a very good job of giving them the facts, they haven't worked through the fact that you cannot really have a racially diverse student body without taking race into consideration in the admissions process.

So, they think you can have both of these worlds simultaneously. And I think eventually, I would hope, they would come to understand that these admissions policies are really a good way of providing the kind of educational experience that people are going to need for the kind of society we're going to live in. A full 1/3 of our population in the working lives of today's students are going to be Hispanic and black, not to mention other minority groups. So, I think eventually the public will understand why, not only what we're doing, but why we're doing it.

Why do you think race sensitive admissions is a great success story.

I think we set out to do two things with race sensitive admissions. The first thing we tried to do is provide what we thought was a better educational experience for this kind of much more diverse society that America was becoming.

I think the best test of that we have is--what do the students themselves think of his? And certainly, the evidence is our book is, I think, overwhelming. The students think this is an important part of their education. They think they learned a lot about living and working with other races by being in a diverse environment. 80% of them would either want to strengthen these policies or retain them. I think that's a very eloquent testimonial to the success of the first venture.

The second thing we tried to do was to try to overcome, or to try to respond, to the need that we perceived from the various professions and other leadership groups in the country, that the country needed a more diverse legal profession, medical profession, business leadership. And there, I think once again, if you look, as we tried to do with what has happened to graduates who began college in 1976. They have had 15 years since college in the world of work, if you look at the salaries they're earning, the positions they occupy, 40% of them, more even than their white classmates going into law, business, medicine, PhD programs. And if you see how much they are contributing more than their white classmates to community and civic activities, I think they have more than fulfilled our hopes for becoming productive, influential members of professions, their communities, the political life of the society.

Can you talk about this notion that the blacks that are admitted to these selective schools were not qualified.

I think there's a lot of evidence in our book that we haven't just tried to meet quotas or in some rigid formulaic way get a certain number of blacks and Hispanics into our student body. I think people don't realize that not only are a number of black students being admitted with lower board scores than white and grades than whites who were rejected, a lot of whites are being admitted with lower board scores and grades than blacks who were excluded.

43% of all the black applicants in our sample who finished in the top 5% of their high school class were denied admission. 25% of black students with 1400 board scores were denied admission. Now, why was that? Because the admissions officers were not just looking at grades and scores, as they have never looked just at grades and scores for white students or anyone else. They were picking and choosing based on a variety of attributes and qualifications and considerations to put together a really outstanding interesting diverse class.

And that has never been something that you can do by the numbers. These tests are helpful. I'm not one of those who believe that the SAT should be abandoned. I think they have limited usefulness, but it's only limited.

It tells you very, very little about what you're going to contribute to the education of your class-mates. It tells you very little about what you're going to be able to contribute to society, once you leave the college and those are very important considerations and have been for more than 100 years to universities.

So, sure, there may be some differences in grades and scores, but they work both ways and they're not really as important in the overall determination of who should be admitted to college as many people outside universities seem to think they are.

Why not?

Well, I think that's an overreaction.

It might prevent certain kinds of admissions policies that these people don't like but it would ignore the valid purpose that these tests do serve. At the present time, there is such an enormous difference among the different high schools in the United States. The SAT is the only kind of uniform yardstick that you have to see whether an A student from high school 1 is equivalent in any approximate sense to the A student from high school #2 or #3.

And if you throw that out, you simply have no way of really comparing candidates. Because you may know their rank in class, but you don't know nearly enough about the nature of the class in which they received that rank. So you get into the problem that I think they're getting into in Texas and they're talking about in California, as well, they're guaranteeing admission to people who finish in the top X percent of their high school class.

Now, what that's going to mean because of the great diversity and disparity in high schools, what that's going to mean is that some students are going to be admitted under this formula are far less qualified to go to college than many students who are going to be denied.

And ironically, for all the people who've been talking about the merits, you're going to be bringing in a lot more unqualified students, including a lot fewer qualified minority students than you are under the current system. All that you'll have done is a kind of almost purely symbolic thing of saying, well, we've disguised the inequalities in admissions by doing away with the test, it isn't right out there in the numbers.

The inequality is in the difference between the schools, but that cannot be quantified and demonstrated, although it exists, we will be able to persuade ourselves that we're really being very evenhanded. That is a spurious way of proceeding. It was not sound educationally. It will result in mismatch of many of the students involved.

And ironically, it will come much closer to producing most of the evils that the critics of affirmative action complain about than the policies we have now.

What about those who say that the SAT is really just measuring test taking skills and well off kids can afford it and poor kids can't.

Well, perhaps the best way of demonstrating it comes from some figures in our book, one of which I mentioned before. By looking very carefully at all of the personal and intellectual attributes of students, we've come up with a system of admissions in which, in our sample, 43% of black students who finished not only in the top 10%, in the top 5% of their high school class, were rejected. Way over half of the white students who finished in the top 5% of their high school class were rejected. Now you're going to impose a system in which being in the top 5% of your class guarantees you admission into selective schools? Sure, grades are relevant, they're helpful, but when you make them the dominant consideration for admission and throw out other pieces of useful information, which, used judiciously and carefully, the SAT is certainly relevant and useful. You throw that out, the admissions process just becomes much more arbitrary and will produce much more quixotic and unfortunate results than what we have now.

And it's just that kind of weird result that bothers me so much when people from the outside come and say, I don't care if all of you worked out these procedure over a long time and that you're educators and you've been doing this for years. We're just going to disregard this. We're going to tell you haw to do it. We're going to put in this formula.

The problems of the 10% formula or the 4% formula that they're using in California are exactly the kind of mistake that you can expect when people come in and say, oh, no, we know a quick easy solution for something, in place of something that has been worked out by trial and error and careful experience over a great many years and you start doing that, you're going to do great damage to our universities.

We wanted to evaluate as best we could how these minority students were admitted to our 28 selective institutions had fared after they graduated. How successful were their lives and of course, measuring the success of the human life is very difficult and we hit upon two measures that we could identify. One was how much of these students earned, because low earnings are a very imperfect measure of anything. They do reflect some judgment of the outside world about the value of the services that you perform in your vocation. And then we also looked at what the students had contributed in civic and community affairs. We looked at probably a dozen different forms of civic and community involvement. Everything from working in inter-city development, and social services through, art galleries, alumni activities, all sorts of things.

What we found was that, the Black graduates of cohort that entered in 1976 were doing very well indeed. They not only earned a lot more than the Black graduates of a sample of American colleges and universities, but they were even earning substantially more than White students with A averages at our sample of American colleges and universities. The Black men were not earning quite as much as their White male classmates, but they were coming a lot closer, in their earnings with their White classmates than Black and White college graduates do nationwide. The Black women were earning significantly, almost the same, as their White classmates, again much more than Black women or White women graduating from all colleges in the country. So, from an earning standpoint, these minority students in selective colleges have been very successful.

Even more interesting is what they have contributed in the community. Because if you looked at their participation, particularly among Black men. The Black men have involved themselves in civic and community affairs significantly more than their White classmates. And interesting enough, the most substantial differences are in the proportions of Black and White males who have assumed leadership positions in civic and community affairs. And there the Black graduates are substantially more likely to have leadership positions. I do want to say one more thing, because some critics have said, "Well that's just because they're not making it in their professions." I think most of us who, have experience in the world know that it's really the very busy successful people who are even more involved in community activities and civic activities than those who are less successful. And sure enough in our data of the minority students who are making the most money are at least as active or even more active in civic and community affairs than the ones who are making less.

Do you agree with Judge Higginbotham when he says "I sometimes have the feeling that I'm watching justice die."

I think I understand what he was saying. If you put yourself in his position, probably the most eloquent plea for doing away with race sensitive admissions is the fact that we all feel uncomfortable at making any important decision for someone else's life, the life of a young applicant seeking admission to these colleges. To make that kind of a decision turn on the color of your skin.

But I think to Judge Higginbotham, he asks himself, "Why do we feel so uncomfortable about making important decisions turn on the color of someone's skin?" It's obviously because of the legacy of slavery, segregation of Jim Crow, because it has had very sorry aspect of our history bound up with it.

But when you think about it that way, what irony it is when you finally have a policy that is going to make it possible to reach out to minorities and give them an opportunity to participate in the professions and positions of leadership in the country. But to turn around and say, in effect, and this is how it looks to Judge Higginbotham, because we feel so badly about the way we treated you and the inhumanity and brutality that we inflicted upon you, we just can't bear to take race into consideration when it's finally going to give you a leg up, to participate fully in the significant positions of influence in the country. That to him is a supreme irony. And I think that is what he referred to as justice dying and when I look at it through his eyes, I can understand what he meant.

Have you thought about using the word color-blind to defend or promote a certain aspect of the law?

Well, I come back to what I just said. I think the reason why we, sometimes respond positive to the idea of a color-blind society, which of course is our ultimate ideal. One of the reasons we respond positive to a color-blind society is because color was so abused. It was a source of such injustice in the past. But to say for that reason that we are going to, do away with color, even when it helps to really integrate our society, I think it's a tragic mistake and I think deep down a lot of people agree.

You see I think what happened in Texas, you can't just talk about Hopwood case, you have to look at what happened after Hopwood. The legislature, including a lot of Republicans and the Republican governor enthusiastically assigned bill, guaranteeing admission to the public university, selective universities in Texas for all students finishing in the top 10% of their high school class.

Now, I think that was a recognition of the fact that we have to find some way of having a more diverse student body. We don't really want to do without diversity. But we don't want to seem to be taking race into consideration. I think that too, reflects the fact that we haven't thoroughly worked through how we want to reconcile these two very strong desires. We want diversity. We need diversity. But we don't like to do it by explicitly taking race into account.

The tragic thing is that when you try to solve the problem by some formulae result like everybody in the top ten percent gets--you really end up much worse. You do all the terrible things that the critics alleged, were happening and which our book proves were not happening. You begin to bring in unqualified minorities because they were unlucky enough to go to schools that did not prepare them for college. You exclude other people including minorities, but also, White students who finished a bit below 10% but went to schools who prepared them far better.

And so at that point, if you talk about meritocracy, you're really going to undermine meritocracy far more by introducing these rigid formulae responses that appear to do away with race. Then you will by making the very careful, case by case evaluations that are going on now in selective universities to try to pick, individual by individual of the most qualified yet diverse student body you can possibly can. And there's just no quick fix to get around that.

We have in this country the Black/White test score gap...

I don't regard the fact that there's a disparity in test scores nearly as importantly as I do the need for diversity, because I know from long experience that test scores, though useful, are a very limited measure of things that matter in choosing students. So, clearly you pay attention to test scores, but the fact that someone's SAT is 100 points less means by the figures and statistics we have, a difference of five percentage points in the rank in class. That's not very important. Especially since the rank in class, though it has some impact, I don't know how you do in later life, a difference of five percent points in rank and class, has very, very, modest difference indeed. So that's not very important in the overall scheme of things.

On the other hand the consequences of returning us to the old days so that the able students in our society will go to more selective universities, will encounter tiny proportions of minority students. Although the world they're going to have to live in is going to be over a third, Black and Hispanic alone. That's just bad education. So I don't weigh those and say, "Oh my goodness. This is an impossible dilemma." I say, "Let's be careful. Let's look at those test scores, but let's not worry very much about gaps of 100 or 150 points, because that's really not a matter of great and lasting moment."

But there's a group called the Center for Individual Rights which took out full page ads in college newspapers--

I don't think you'll find many people with experience in admissions who have seen through trial and error over a number of years exactly how much, those scores mean and how much they don't mean. You don't see them climbing the barricades and calling it meritocracy.

You see, I think the minority students that we admit to Harvard are every bit as meritorious as the White students that we admit. Because once again, I think merit has to do with whether how well the student is suited to carry out the purposes of the institution. And our minority students are doing a lot to enrich the quality of education for themselves and for the White students. And they're contributing a lot to the kind of society we want to live in.

Affirmative action is dead, let's get over it. What do you say to that?

California is only a single state. Beside, even in California the referendum applies only to public universities. I don't believe Stanford or Pomona are behaving any differently. So I guess I would take issue with that remark and feel it's a little bit parochial. Whether politically you could put something on the ballot again in California is another story. But certainly if we look at the country as a whole, as I think we should, it's a bit premature to say that the hero is dead.

Are you acquainted at all with the lawsuit that just happened against UC Berkeley?

I don't think judges are particularly well equipped to make those decisions. So it's not just a matter of a lot of litigation. I think you're going to end up with a sort of complicated rule book of do's and don'ts that will have a lot of anomalies and contradictions and open up a lot of possibilities for game playing. For particular groups to get ahead of other groups because they know better how to manipulate an increasingly complex system.

So the idea that we are going to do something clean and surgical--no more race--I think is a real illusion and this lawsuit is only an early step in a gradual process of complication and legal complexity from which no one will benefit in the end.

What is your view on the side effect of an increasing number of Asians on college campuses due to Prop. 209?

My guess is that you could find a lot of Asian students--I don't know, but I imagine if you polled Asian students at Harvard and said "Would you like to have a situation where 80% of the student body were Asian?" They would probably say "No, that wouldn't be as interesting an education, as rich an education, as helpful an education for the society we live in as the one we've got now."

So it might be unfortunate but not because they are Asians, it would be unfortunate if it were 80% black or 80% anything else. We need diversity. Diversity is part of education and there's so many things in the country that kind of make for more segregation. We still don't really live with different races. We don't have the Army compulsory military service any more to have this kind of--I mean, there aren't very many ways today in which young people can have the experience of living and working with a truly diverse group. Not just racially diverse but diverse in all kinds of ways.

The perception is that you're not getting a space because if you're a White or an Asian kid, a Black or a Latino will get a space instead of you.

Because there are so many more White applicants to selective universities than there are minorities, the actual impact on the chances of White students getting in, of doing away with affirmative action, turned out to be very small. In our sample of 30,000 students we can show that if you did away with race sensitive admissions entirely, the percentage of White students who would get in would rise from 25% to 26.5%. Very small increase in the odds.

But, of course, there's a natural tendency to think that you would always be in that 1.5% and the analogy we used is the handicap parking space. I'm sure most of us, at one point or another we needed to get someplace on time, we desperately needed to park our car, we passed an empty handicap parking space and we kind of said silently to one another "If it weren't for that silly law I'd be parked by now." Well, actually, the chances of that space would still be empty if you didn't have a handicap sign on it are vanishingly small. But you just assume that that space would have been vacant just waiting for you if it's hadn't been reserved for some other group to which you don't belong.

What is the myth of pure merit? What do you mean that we have to unpack merit?

I think the thread that connects them all is that merit means the people who are best qualified to achieve the purposes of the organization that is doing the choosing. If you look from that standpoint, you see that grades and scores of course are not an indication of merit. They haven't been used to the exclusion of other factors by any self-respecting selective university in a hundred years because they are simply not an adequate way of identifying those students who will most fulfill the legitimate purposes of the institution. To do that you've got to look at a wide range of other factors.

Race is one of those factors because a diverse student body is part of the educational purpose of the institution, and because providing a more diverse leadership in this country is something that the country wants, and universities have been in the business of preparing leaders for a very long time, and minority students have a special contribution to make in our society at this particular period in our history.

What do you say to the idea that a black student admitted to UC Riverside or Cal State, for example, is significantly disadvantaged to that of an affirmative action admit to Princeton or Harvard?

One thing that has been researched very carefully is what are the consequences particularly on later life earnings with going to different kinds of institutions. There are even studies of identical twins where one identical twin goes to one university and the other goes to another university. And whatever study you use there are substantial differences in later life earnings depending on the degree of selectivity of the college you attend.

Part of that is for a kind of credentialing effect that I think is subject to criticism --looking at the label perhaps too indiscriminately and part of it is that the more selective institutions have more resources, better faculty-student ratios, more books in the library, a wider variety of courses -- and so you would expect if you invest more resources in the educational process there should be some advantage to that.

Part of it I suspect is the more selective institutions have larger concentrations of students with high ambitions in life and that acts as a real stimulus on everyone in the class. They set their sites higher. And so for these complex reasons which we don't understand completely there are these significant differences. And as I said before, if there were not these differences we would not be having this dispute. If it really didn't make any difference whether you go to Cal State Fullerton or to Berkeley, I don't think you would ever had Proposition 209 on the ballot.

So I think it's a little disingenuous for people to say "Oh, it really doesn't make any different they are exaggerating. That's not only empirically and demonstrably false it also turns a blind eye to all of the motivations that are leading to these lawsuits and leading people to react to angrily at being excluded from the selective universities.

Why would getting rid of affirmative action be a mistake?

I think in evaluating the long term consequences to doing away with selective racially sensitive admissions you have to begin by recognizing how diverse and will become. You have to remember that in the lifetime of students at universities today--they will live in a society in which over a third of all Americans are Black and Hispanic, let alone Asians, Pakistanis, and lots of other races that will also be mixed in.

And you have to say, "What is the best educational preparation for them?" Is it living in a virtually all-White enclave where you have no contact with people from other races? You don't learn to understand their perspectives and their differences and live and work with them more effectively? And what kind of a society do we want? Do we really think that we can have a justice system in this country in which almost all the judges are White, dispensing justice to a people, a large majority of whom are people of color? It's not for nothing that the American Bar Association has recognized that if justice is perceived to be fair in a racially diverse nation, there must be some diversity in the ranks of judges and leading lawyers as well.

So, if you look at all of the professions and you ask yourself, "Is it realistic to expect that we will have a country one-third of which is Black and Hispanic but virtually all the executives of corporations, the lawyers in the leading law firms, the judges who sit on the bench, the doctors who populate our urban hospitals are going to be White with a certain percentage of Asians. Is that really going to be a viable long term solution?" I would say clearly not.

The reason that we used long term consequences in the title is to really counteract a sense that you get in many of the criticisms of race sensitive admissions. What college is all about is some kind of 4-year game about who is going to end up with the highest grades. And I don't mean to say that academic achievement isn't important. But it is after all a means to an end.

What we are doing in educating students is trying to prepare them to live more fulfilling lives for the decades after they graduate. And trying to provide a better, richer, fairer, more decent society for the generations after. So long term consequences are the ultimate test of what we do. I think any self-respecting educational institution ought to judge it's policies by its best estimate of what their long-term consequences for their students and for the society will be.

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