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Princeton Prof. Takes On Affirmative Action And The Racial Achievement Gap

After making headlines for his early work studying race-based affirmative 
action as it compares to admission preferences for athletes and legacies, 
Princeton University Professor of Sociology Thomas Espenshade continues his 
work to explore the role that selective colleges and universities play in 
perpetuating social inequality.

Espenshade's most recent research delves more deeply into race-based 
affirmative action and the challenges of the achievement gap. In a Q&A, 
Espenshade presents his work in his own words and on his own terms, 
including addressing popular tendencies to use his research to understand 
how Asian American applicants are affected by affirmative action and to use 
his modeling of admissions practices to understand the inside of the college 
admissions process.

[Photos of Espenshade are available online at]

*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.

--Q: 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?

A: 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.

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.

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

A: 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 

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

A: 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. 

--Q: 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?

A: 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 

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. 

--Q: 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 

A: 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 

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.

--Q: Do you see direct policy implications in your work? 

A: 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 

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.



Contact: Cass Cliatt, (609) 258-6108, 

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