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.
Espenshade 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 action.
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 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.