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Reviewed by:
  • Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education
  • John L. Hynes
Bowen, William G., Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin , 2005. Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. $27.95 hc. xvi + 453 pp.

This book began as a series of lectures sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at the University of Virginia, given in 2004 by William G. Bowen, former President of Princeton University and now President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His co-authors are Martin A. Kurzweil, Research Associate at the Mellon Foundation and a student at Harvard Law School, and Eugene M. Tobin, former President of Hamilton College and now Program Officer for the Liberal Arts Colleges Program at the Mellon Foundation. This is a major work of policy analysis aimed at those who influence admissions decisions at American's most elite and prestigious colleges and universities. It makes recommendations as to how to achieve a more just society and is based on both ethical claims and empirical data. Its major findings are twofold: first, that moral imperative and practical need require that the most elite colleges and universities actively recruit students from groups previously underrepresented or even excluded, i.e., from minority populations and those in the bottom quartile of American family income; and second, that doing this in a judicious fashion will in no way compromise these institutions' commitments to academic excellence.

The authors briefly review the history of U.S. education in order to explain "where we have been and where we are now" (5). Although this section will not reveal anything new to specialists in U.S. history, it is certainly a story worth retelling and one that establishes an ethical claim on righting past injustices. The authors also point out that U.S. colleges and universities were able to grow exponentially during the twentieth century because of the tremendous increase in the number of potential students when U.S. secondary school systems expanded and when huge numbers of well-prepared foreign applicants became interested in U.S. higher education. The latter group has contributed an especially well-qualified pool of applicants for science and engineering programs in the U.S. Two problems now threaten this success story. First, U.S. high school graduation rates have been more or less flat since the 1970s, with something like one quarter of our high school students dropping [End Page 208] out before graduating. Second, in the post-9/11 world, colleges can no longer count on a large pool of foreign applicants. Thus, we need to increase the number of qualified U.S. high school students for very practical reasons in addition to reasons relating to social justice. As the authors point out, "What is clear is that to continue to achieve excellence—defined, we repeat, as educating large numbers of people to a high standard and advancing and disseminating knowledge—we must enrich the pool of candidates for higher education by addressing equity objectives. There is no other way" (72).

The heart of the book presents empirical analysis of data from highly selective schools. First, the authors examine the admissions policies of a group of 19 elite private and public colleges and universities, along with an analysis of the academic success achieved by the admitted students. The authors find that the admissions policies of schools which claimed to be focused on academic qualifications rather than on the ability to pay are generally fair and unbiased. One problem, however, is that many poor and minority students who might well have been accepted did not apply. An even more serious problem is a lack of preparedness of potentially able minority students because society under-invests in their elementary and secondary educations. The authors also find that minority students have done well academically at these colleges, thereby undermining the claim by some people that admitting minority students per se will result in a watering down of academic quality.

The authors then discuss the economic and social impact on those attending elite institutions. They present data on a cohort of students who graduated from a group of selective colleges in 1980. Not surprisingly, in 1995, graduates whose parents were...


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