Perspective on: Affirmative action and the racial achievement gap

Jan. 14, 2010 10:16 a.m.

Photos: Brian Wilson

Name: Thomas Espenshade

Professor of sociology and faculty associate of the Office of Population Research

Scholarly focus:
Social demography and diversity in higher education. He is the co-author of "No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life" (Princeton University Press, 2009) with Alexandria Walton Radford, who completed her Ph.D. in sociology at Princeton and is a research associate in postsecondary education in Washington, D.C.

The title of your book alludes to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision ending segregation under a previous "separate but equal" doctrine. How does your research look at this question of educational equality?

We say in the beginning that our aim is to pull back the curtain on the selective college experience and examine how students' racial and social class backgrounds influence the admission process, as well as various aspects of campus life. Our book didn't begin as a study about inequality, but the research showed that these differences are so striking that it was hard to ignore them.

"No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal" book cover

I think the thing that I found most surprising was how inequality in society as a whole -- both by race and by social class -- finds its way onto the college campus. It gets transformed in certain respects by the elite college experience, but nevertheless there are important dimensions of inequality that elite higher education just can't totally eliminate.

Was it your goal to focus on the racial achievement gap?

Not at all. I'm not sure that I even knew much about the achievement gap when I started. But if there's any significant recommendation that comes out of the book -- and we have three in the final chapter -- the most important one is spurred by a societal challenge posed by the racial gap in skills and knowledge, and what as a society we ought to be doing about it. It is an issue that affects higher education, but it also pervades so much of inequality among adults in this country. And it has implications for the quality of the U.S. workforce and the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.

Although our book is about higher education, so many of the dimensions of inequality that we have detected relate in one way or another to this racial gap in academic achievement, something that begins long before students even think about applying to college. And in part, it's an urgent challenge because of the uncertain life expectancy surrounding race-based affirmative action.

What do you mean in your book when you refer to a sunset clause for affirmative action?

In the 2003 Supreme Court decision [upholding the use of race-based affirmative action at the University of Michigan Law School], Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the majority opinion, said at the end, "The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." So that's the implied sunset provision.

If race-based affirmative action were to disappear, what does that leave us with to achieve a diverse undergraduate student body? This is where the racial achievement gap comes in, because one of the things we show is if the racial gap in academic achievement between whites and Hispanics and between whites and blacks were no longer there, universities could do away with race-based affirmative action and preserve the exact same racial diversity that we have now.

Espenshade teaching

In his freshman seminar "Race, Class and the Selective College Experience," Espenshade encourages students in a mock admissions committee exercise to explore the factors they would consider in deciding which applicants they would admit, put on a wait list or reject for the fictional college of "Premier U."

Your book describes a Manhattan Project for social and behavioral sciences. What do you intend in applying this term to the problem of the achievement gap?

What we want to suggest is a research project that has the same scale, urgency and sense of importance as the original Manhattan Project. But our proposed project involves following a large sample of children from birth to roughly age 18 or onto the first step of their postsecondary plans. We need to know when and exactly how achievement gaps develop and what can be done to eliminate them.

The original Manhattan Project lasted from 1942 to 1946 and had three main sites in addition to many smaller research units around the country. At any one time, there were 125,000 people involved in the Manhattan Project, and the total cost of it over the four years in today's dollars was about $30 billion to develop the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan.

Another similarity -- and why we call it a new Manhattan Project -- is that closing the racial gap in academic achievement is a vital element of our national defense, not necessarily in a military sense, but in terms of the strength of the economy (and) in terms of the strength of the quality of the workforce.

The urgency is created by this implied sunset provision. Young people who are going off to college in the year 2028, which is 25 years after the 2003 Supreme Court decision, will be born this year. By the time your readers are reading this article, some students in the entering first-year class for the fall of 2028 will have already been born. This fact creates a sense of urgency. It's not that we have until 2028 to figure out what's going on. We really need to be starting much sooner than that.

What I'm hoping is that our discussion will add yet another voice to a growing number of academics and non-academics who are talking about the societal importance of the racial gap in skills and knowledge. I'm also hoping that we'll be able to generate the necessary funds to mount a project on a scale previously unimagined in the social and behavioral sciences. I didn't choose this analogy to the Manhattan Project lightly.

What do you say to people who try to look at your research as a guide to understanding admission practices and decisions at highly selective institutions?

Our findings attempt to compile a composite picture drawn from the experiences of eight academically selective colleges and universities. They should not be interpreted as describing the situation at any particular institution in the data set.

The book that we've done does, of course, focus on the admission process, but it is not just a story about admission. It's also about what happens prior to being admitted. In other words, we have a chapter about preparing for college. But most of the book talks about various issues of campus life: What happens after the admission people do their work and students arrive on campus?

In the chapter on admission, we do a lot of statistical modeling of the admission process. We develop equations that link the probability of being admitted to such things as SAT scores, to whether you're a recruited athlete, to what social class background you're from, to what racial or ethnic group you belong to, to whether you're a U.S. citizen, what kind of high school you attended and so forth. And people have a tendency to look at these results and say, "Aha! That is how the admission process at these elite schools works!" It's not necessarily true.

What we have done through these statistical equations is to say it's AS IF this is how admission officers were deciding whom to admit. We don't have the experience of knowing precisely how these admission committees work, because I've never actually sat in on an admission committee. But I'm convinced they don't have an equation like this and say, "OK, if you are Hispanic, you get a certain number of points; if your SAT scores are in this category, you get a certain number of points," right down the list.

People may read this and want to say, "Oh, because I'm Asian American, my SAT scores have been downgraded." That is not really the way to interpret these data. Many times people will ask me, "Do your results prove that there is discrimination against Asian applicants?" And I say, "No, they don't." Even though in our data we have much information about the students and what they present in their application folders, most of what we have are quantifiable data. We don't have the "softer" variables -- the personal statements that the students wrote, their teacher recommendations, a full list of extracurricular activities. Because we don't have access to all of the information that the admission office has access to, it is possible that the influence of one applicant characteristic or another might appear in a different light if we had the full range of materials.

Students discussing

Students in Espenshade's freshman seminar who developed the profiles of students who would apply to a selective college argue in favor of the merits of admitting the students they helped to create. The exercise was designed to give students insights into the challenges that real admissions committees face in choosing between qualified applicants.

Do you see direct policy implications in your work?

There are two other challenges that we talk about -- challenges that are mainly for admission deans and administrators at elite colleges and universities. One of them has to do directly with the admission process and with the role that elite higher education plays in either creating pathways to upward mobility for students or, on the other hand, reinforcing existing patterns of inequality in society. It's both understandable and regrettable, but if you look at the likelihood of being admitted in different social class categories, students who have the best chances of being admitted to elite schools already come from privileged backgrounds. Those students who come from a disadvantaged, lower-class background, if they even manage to get into the applicant pool in the first place, have a smaller likelihood of being admitted.

The way we put it in our concluding chapter is that we encourage admission deans to aspire to socioeconomic neutrality. What that would mean is that, regardless of a student's social class background, he or she would have the same chance of being admitted.

That's not to say that there aren't some students who benefit from these pathways to upward mobility. It's important to point out that elite higher education is already doing a number of things to help lower-income students. Race-based affirmative action is one step in the direction of greater socioeconomic neutrality. And the increasing number of schools that have followed Princeton's lead in creating no-loan policies, this is an extra step that institutions are taking. But we hope, especially when the economy gets better, that schools will be able to do even more.

A second implication is also a challenge for leaders in higher education, not as much for admission deans, but much more for vice presidents of campus life and similar administrators. There is a tendency, once a diverse group of students is admitted to an institution, to self-congregate around common interests and common backgrounds. And so the promise of diversity isn't being fully realized.

What we have found is those students who mix and mingle the most with students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds come away from college feeling that they have learned the most from diversity.

I teach a freshman seminar on "Race, Class and the Selective College Experience," and I tell students that as a faculty member, I find it is much more interesting to teach a class where there are diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives than if students are all alike. I say, I don't care -- you can pick any student around the table, I don't care whom you pick -- I wouldn't want a class of 15 students just like that one person.

Diversity work does not begin and end with the admission office. I believe it's incumbent upon campus leaders to be more proactive in finding additional ways for students from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to mix and mingle in order to realize the full promise of diversity.