(3) Can "color-blind" affirmative action work?
As race-based affirmative action has become increasingly controversial, some states have tried to find workarounds that achieve similar goals. In 1997, Texas passed a bill that guarantees every student who finishes in the top 10 percent of their high school class admission to one of the state's flagship campuses (e.g. UT-Austin and Texas A&M), no matter what their SAT scores, extra-curriculars, or ethnicity might be. In today's Supreme Court case, the state university system is defending a separate part of its affirmative action program, which explicitly takes race into account for students who don't make the 10 percent cut.
This is one example of what Fryer and Loury call "color-blind affirmative action." In Texas, it works because communities tend to be extremely segregated, so taking the best students from each school district yields a decent amount of diversity. In a state that is 38 percent Hispanic and 12 percent black, the students admitted under the 10 percent rule are 26 percent Hispanic and 6 percent black, a somewhat reasonable result. Other colleges take different approaches, such as letting applicants skip sending in standardized test scores, or focusing more on extra-curricular activities.
Fryer and Loury's qualm with these methods isn't whether they may or may not work at getting minority students in the door. Rather, the pair think they simply aren't efficient. Affirmative action, by definition, requires schools to ease up on their admissions criteria. That makes the overall class less academically prepared by standard measures. If the ultimate goal is to create a racially diverse campus, then colleges may be dropping their standards more than necessary for the sake of looking race-neutral. They cast a wider net than they have to, and catch more marginally qualified students than they need.
If your goal is to move the focus off race and onto socioeconomic status, all of this isn't really a problem. And that may be a fair goal. One of the criticisms of race-based affirmative action is that it too often assists upper-middle-class and upper-class African Americans, or wealthy black students from Africa or the Caribbean, instead of truly disadvantaged students. But if your policy amounts to making schools go through an elaborate charade in order to keep minorities on campus, that comes with consequences.
(4) Can affirmative action hurt minority students in the long run? And does it matter?
There's an obvious draw-back to taking marginal students and putting them in elite universities: some of them won't be able to handle it. A number will flounder, and a number will simply drop out. This problem, known as "mismatch," has drawn the attention of a growing group of researchers and writers, including UCLA Law Professor Richard Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr., who recently published an excerpt of their book on the topic in The Atlantic.
Loury and Fryer acknowledged that if this problem truly turns out to be severe, it should give everyone pause. But they wondered themselves: If some minorities fail, could an affirmative action program still be worth it? Take, for instance, law schools. Sander's research has suggested the black law students often underperform their white peers, and drop out at higher rates, because they tend to end at schools they're ill-prepared to attend. But from society's perspective, those casualties might be justified by the overall goal of producing more black lawyers. One might retort that making sure black students are in suitable schools will lead more to graduate and take the bar. In the end, it's a very cold, cost-benefit analysis, but one that should still be made.
(5) Will giving students "equal opportunity" lead to an equal society?
When affirmative action was born in the 1960s, American universities had a long history of discrimination against African Americans and other minorities. Today, with campuses desperately battling to keep their diversity programs in tact, nobody would seriously suggest that's still a widespread problem. And so it's worth asking: if we just keep giving everyone an equal shot at college, will that one day be enough to get equal results?
Loury and Fryer say no, it won't be enough. Neighborhoods tend to segregate by race, and our own success in life is not only profoundly affected by the success of our parents, but also the behavior of the people we grow up around, and the public resources we have in reach, including good schools and safe streets. Minority communities start at a disadvantage on all these measures, and the reality is that means they'll probably end at a disadvantage too.