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Why Race Matters in College Admissions

By Eugene M. Tobin  |  Contact Eugene M. Tobin
Posted February 16, 1999
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Admission decisions at America's selective colleges are individualized, time-consuming and inexact. There is no magic formula. A multitude of factors are considered, including, at many elite colleges, race.

Less than six months after a study by two former Ivy League presidents concluded that African-American graduates of America's elite colleges are "the backbone of the emergent black middle class," a new attack is being launched against race-sensitive admission policies and those colleges that practice them.

The campaign, by the Center for Individual Rights, questions the legality of race-sensitive admissions. It is, in large part, a reaction to what is likely to become a landmark study by former Harvard University President Derek Bok and former Princeton University President William Bowen. Their report, titled The Shape of the River, looked at the long-term consequences of race-sensitive admission decisions at Bryn Mawr, Columbia, Emory, Hamilton, Penn, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Swarthmore, Vanderbilt and more than a dozen other colleges. On nearly every measure, Bok and Bowen found that African-American graduates of these colleges excelled. Among their findings:

o African-Americans entering selective colleges in 1989 received bachelor's degrees (B.A.s) at nearly twice the national average for all black students nationwide (75 percent vs. 40 percent).

o African-American graduates from selective schools were also almost twice as likely as black B.A.s nationwide to obtain advanced degrees.

o African-American male B.A.s who entered selective institutions in 1976 and worked full time earned 84 percent more than the average for all black male B.A.s. African-American female B.A.s from selective institutions earned 71 percent more.

o African-American men and women who attended selective colleges are more active than their white classmates in civic activities. "They not only wish to do well financially but to do good for their communities," the authors concluded.

These results are spectacularly affirming of the impact of the education offered at America's selective colleges.

However, since only 20 to 30 percent of all undergraduate institutions receive more applications than they have places in their entering classes, it is primarily at these colleges that race plays a role in admissions, and thus sparks controversy. The issue has been debated most passionately in California, Washington State and Texas, but the public policy implications are universal.

According to Bok and Bowen:

o If race was not considered in admitting students, the percentage of African-Americans in the student bodies of selective institutions would drop substantially. For example, the percentages of blacks entering the most selective schools would have declined from 8 percent to 2 percent.

o The probability of being admitted was roughly three times greater for African-American students than for whites with similar scores. Even so, among black students finishing in the top 5 percent of their high school class, only 57 percent were admitted to these selective institutions, clear evidence that race is not an overriding factor in college admission decisions.

Like many of its peers, Hamilton proudly considers a student's race as part of a selection process that includes a student's rank in class, standardized test scores, personal accomplishments and special skills. We think it is good public policy, and we believe it is consistent with Justice Harry Blackmun's aphorism in the 1978 Supreme Court decision in the Bakke case that "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race."

One of my greatest concerns is that critics of the policy will assume that any multicultural student enrolled at a selective college is there solely because of race-sensitive admissions. This conclusion is as unfair and inaccurate as it would be to assume that a student is enrolled at one of these colleges because of her jump shot or another student is enrolled because of his family legacy.

For both pedagogical and public policy reasons, colleges like Hamilton must be representative of the world our students will enter after graduation. The great mix of talents, colors, skills, experiences and interests — when joined together — is what make these colleges great. A college education that excludes certain viewpoints and perspectives is irrelevant in the world in which that education will be practiced.

People rightly seek a society in which racial prejudice no longer limits opportunities. But any close observer of American life cannot help but see the many ways in which racial differences continue to thwart aspirations for an open and just society. Approximately one hundred years ago, W.E.B. DuBois observed that the great challenge of the twentieth century would be the "color line" that so clearly separated the races. Today, as we prepare for a new century and a new millennium, the issue of race remains one of this nation's more pernicious and enduring divides.

The findings of the Bok and Bowen study suggest that America's elite colleges have an important role to play in achieving these goals. We will continue to do our part.

Eugene M. Tobin is president of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.

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