When the case for affirmative action in college and university admissions is argued before the Supreme Court this year, the justices are likely to hear many theories, many assertions -- and little evidence. People who are for or against affirmative action are usually for or against the theory of it. What actually happens under this policy gets remarkably little attention.
There is one study, however, that is virtually certain to be cited as evidence by those defending racial preferences and quotas, because it is regarded by liberals in the media and academia as definitive -- at least by those who confuse voluminous with definitive.
That study is titled "The Shape of the River" by former university presidents William Bowen and Derek Bok. While this book has lots of statistics, none of those statistics is specifically about the ostensible subject of the book -- black students who are admitted to colleges and universities with lower qualifications than white students, as a result of racial preferences or quotas.
This much-heralded study is Hamlet without the prince of Denmark. Bowen and Bok lump together those black students who were admitted under the same standards as white students with those black students who were admitted under lower standards. But the issue is not whether any black students should be admitted to elite colleges. The issue is whether they should be admitted under the same standards as others.
Other studies have confronted that issue. At universities where the test scores of black and white students are similar, their graduation rates have been similar. At universities where there are wide gaps between the average test scores of black and white students, there are usually wide gaps between their graduation rates.
At the flagship University of Colorado campus at Boulder, where the average SAT score of black students was more than 200 points lower than that of white students, only 39 percent of the black students graduated, compared to 72 percent of the whites.
At the University of Colorado at Denver, however, where the difference in SAT scores was only 30 points, half of all black students and 48 percent of all white students graduated within a six-year span. Where there were negligible differences in qualifications, there were negligible differences in results.