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Graduate Admissions Down for Minorities

When California voters approved an anti-affirmative action referendum in 1996, and a district court that same year banned affirmative action at universities in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, educators feared that minority university admissions would suffer in those states. A report released last week by the AAAS (publisher of ScienceNOW) shows the situation to be even worse than many expected: Minority enrollments in graduate science and engineering programs dropped precipitously in 1997, not just in Texas and California but across the country. The report's authors attribute the fall to the uncertainty the laws and legal challenges have bred nationwide about what forms of affirmative action are legally allowable.

Coincidentally, that gloomy news came out within a day of the publication of "The Shape of the River," a new book by William Bowen, president of the Mellon Foundation, and former Harvard University President Derek Bok documenting the achievements of past affirmative action programs. Published by Princeton University Press, it concludes that such policies at top universities have largely been successful in giving black undergraduates a boost toward financial success, professional and graduate study, and leadership positions in society.

The authors of the AAAS report reached their conclusion by analyzing admissions data for the past 4 years, from science and engineering graduate programs at 93 major research universities. They found that in 1997, black graduate admissions declined 20% and those of Hispanics dropped 18%. Bowen and Bok, meanwhile, studied admissions and student performance data from 28 highly selective undergraduate institutions, as well as survey responses from 31,000 students who entered those institutions in 1976 and 1989. Their findings challenge several commonly held negative beliefs about affirmative action. For example, at the schools surveyed, the same percentage of black as white students (20%) majored in science and engineering. "That is so different from the myths one hears, that [blacks] are all majoring in African American studies," says Bowen.

The detailed data in both reports will "provide a factual basis" for new plans to recoup losses and increase minority enrollment in science and engineering programs, says Luther Williams, assistant director for Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation (NSF). But given the growing list of legal strictures, NSF must walk a fine line in pursuit of its goal of improved minority enrollments.