PRINCETON, NJ—A new NAS report (PDF) looks at results of recent social science studies and finds them undermining key arguments used by supporters of racial preferences in university admissions. Three of the studies surveyed were sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the very same organization that in the past has been most active in rallying public support for the current affirmative action policies in the academy.
In the eyes of much of the academic establishment, William Bowen and Derek Bok’s *The Shape of the River* is the definitive defense of affirmative action. Released in 1998, this book, which was also sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, claimed that racial preferences at America’s elite universities were crucial to the growth and maintenance of a healthy black middle class. In this new NAS report, which is titled “The Changing Shape of the River: Affirmative Action and Recent Social Science Research,” Russell K. Nieli, a Lecturer in Princeton University’s Politics Department, summarizes several studies that directly contradict this and other central claims of the Bowen and Bok book. The research Dr. Nieli summarizes has received little publicity from mainstream media, and is generally unknown outside a narrow circle of specialists.
In one of the studies summarized, it was found that after controlling for initial student input factors, including difficult-to-measure character traits like maturity and motivation, no advantage whatever was found of attending a more competitive college in terms of a graduate’s future earnings. All of the earnings advantage of attending a more selective college was shown to lie in the superior caliber of the students that the more selective colleges can recruit, rather than any independent “school effect” of attendance at the institutions in question. This Mellon-sponsored study serves to undermine one of the major contentions of the Bowen and Bok book that in placing blacks in more selective colleges, affirmative action policies have greatly enhanced the economic position of the black middle class.
Other studies surveyed show that there is widespread hostility among white and Asian college students to the preferential treatment of blacks and Hispanics; that this fact heightens racial tensions on campus; and that it also increases the feeling on the part of the beneficiaries of racial preferences that they are academically inferior and incapable of a high level of academic performance. This last factor is shown to have a harmful effect on the academic achievement of black students—who earn considerably lower grades in college than their SAT scores would predict—and it is also related to the fact so few black students persist with an initial freshman-year intention to pursue a career in academic teaching.
Material is also presented that suggests that affirmative action policies in colleges and graduate schools create a perverse incentive structure that discourages black and Hispanic students from working as hard as their white and Asian peers.
The study concludes with some reflections on why a policy that has been shown to have almost all of the pernicious effects that its many critics have always said it would have is still with us thirty years after its inception. Adopting the analysis of Shelby Steele, Dr. Nieli believes that a peculiar form of post-60s white guilt is at the heart of white administrators’ support of affirmative action, and that the need to alleviate this guilt through symbolic gestures rather than to set wise educational policy is what sustains a clearly irrational set of programs whose multiple faults recent social science research has only too well illuminated.
The National Association of Scholars is America’s foremost higher education reform group. Located in Princeton, it has forty-six state affiliates and more than four thousand professors, graduate students, administrators, and trustees as members.