COMMENTARY

It’s Time to Improve Affirmative Action

Now that the Supreme Court has blessed racial preferences, universities should be transparent about the costs and benefits to intended beneficiaries.

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr.
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Richard Sander Stuart Taylor, Jr.
June 29, 2016, 1:01 p.m.

By mak­ing clear that ra­cial af­firm­at­ive-ac­tion pref­er­ences in high­er-edu­ca­tion ad­mis­sions are likely to have the Su­preme Court’s bless­ing for many dec­ades to come, the Court might—just might—have set the stage for a more can­did and con­struct­ive pub­lic dis­cus­sion about how to make pref­er­ences work more ef­fect­ively for the in­ten­ded be­ne­fi­ciar­ies.

The June 23 de­cision should end the siege men­tal­ity among de­fend­ers of ra­cial pref­er­ences—and that, in turn, should lead to much-needed trans­par­ency and hon­esty about the costs as well as the be­ne­fits of the very large pref­er­ences that most se­lect­ive schools have long used.

Bar­ring an im­prob­able change in the Court’s mem­ber­ship, Justice An­thony Kennedy’s opin­ion for the 4-3 ma­jor­ity in Fish­er v. Uni­versity of Texas gives uni­versit­ies very broad lat­it­ude to design race-con­scious ad­mis­sions pro­grams that they be­lieve will foster more in­clus­ive, mul­ti­eth­nic com­munit­ies and edu­cate stu­dents to func­tion ef­fect­ively in an ever more di­verse world.

The de­cision should also move de­fend­ers of ra­cial af­firm­at­ive ac­tion to con­front the hard truth that many Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, His­pan­ic-Amer­ic­an, and oth­er minor­ity stu­dents are han­di­capped by in­ad­equate K-12 edu­ca­tions and find them­selves strug­gling aca­dem­ic­ally at se­lect­ive schools.

Stu­dents ad­mit­ted with mod­est ra­cial pref­er­ences of­ten thrive in col­lege. But a wealth of so­cial sci­ence evid­ence shows that those who re­ceive un­duly large pref­er­ences of­ten lag far be­hind class­mates with much stronger high school grades and test scores. Many of these stu­dents lose in­tel­lec­tu­al self-con­fid­ence, aban­don ca­reer as­pir­a­tions, and sink in­to so­cial isol­a­tion.

Well over 20 em­pir­ic­al stud­ies over the past 12 years by ser­i­ous schol­ars have con­firmed the com­mon-sense per­cep­tion that most stu­dents learn less if they are thrust in­to en­vir­on­ments in which most of their peers are much bet­ter pre­pared to learn dif­fi­cult ma­ter­i­al. The re­search has in­cluded large, ex­per­i­ment­al stud­ies con­duc­ted by some of the world’s top so­cial sci­ent­ists in such di­verse set­tings as the Air Force Academy in Col­or­ado and ele­ment­ary edu­ca­tion in Kenya.

These “mis­match ef­fects,” as they are called, have been par­tic­u­larly well doc­u­mented in the sci­ences and in law school. They help ex­plain why Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans at­tend­ing col­lege are only one-sev­enth as likely as whites to at­tain a sci­ence Ph.D., why many are forced to aban­don their dreams of be­com­ing phys­i­cians or en­gin­eers, and why there are huge ra­cial gaps in bar-ex­am pas­sage rates.

But mis­match ef­fects are neither pre­or­dained nor uni­ver­sal. Sup­port­ive aca­dem­ic en­vir­on­ments can off­set or elim­in­ate them. When ra­cial gaps between en­ter­ing stu­dents are re­l­at­ively mod­est, stu­dents of col­or can raise their games and gain ground in col­lege on some­what bet­ter-pre­pared white and Asi­an class­mates.

Uni­versit­ies could in­crease the be­ne­fits of af­firm­at­ive ac­tion and min­im­ize the costs by the simple ex­pedi­ent of truth in mar­ket­ing—that is, by dis­clos­ing closely guarded data show­ing the size, and the ap­par­ent ef­fects on aca­dem­ic per­form­ance, of the pref­er­ences they use to reach the ra­cial tar­gets they set for them­selves.

How large a pref­er­ence is too large? There is no simple for­mula. But lift­ing the veil of secrecy that uni­versit­ies now use to con­ceal data about their pref­er­ence pro­grams would foster bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the trade-offs and more in­formed dis­course about best prac­tices.

In the past, aca­dem­ic­ally un­der­prepared minor­ity stu­dents have of­ten been misled by the uni­versit­ies that re­cruit them about their pro­spects for aca­dem­ic suc­cess. Trans­par­ency would help these stu­dents as­sess the strength of the com­pet­i­tion that they would be up against and which schools might work best for them.

The same is true for alumni chil­dren and re­cruited ath­letes, many of whom re­ceive ad­mis­sions pref­er­ences that are (with the ex­cep­tions of ath­let­ic stars and kids of very large donors) much smal­ler.

We urged the Su­preme Court in an amicus brief in Fish­er to re­quire uni­versit­ies to be trans­par­ent about the size and work­ings of their ad­mis­sions pref­er­ences and their aca­dem­ic ef­fects. The Court, we now know, is not go­ing to do that. But for the reas­ons giv­en above, en­lightened edu­cat­ors should em­brace trans­par­ency vol­un­tar­ily.

Why have they nev­er done so? A ma­jor reas­on has been the fear that has grown over four dec­ades that hon­esty about the size and scale of pref­er­ences, or about the real­ity of mis­match ef­fects, would only provide am­muni­tion for a broad Su­preme Court at­tack on all af­firm­at­ive-ac­tion pro­grams.

This fear has led oth­er­wise thought­ful people to dis­reg­ard or deny strong evid­ence that mis­match is a ser­i­ous prob­lem, and to ob­struct ac­cess to the data that could shed light on the ac­tu­al ef­fects of ad­mis­sions pref­er­ences on in­ten­ded be­ne­fi­ciar­ies.

But with the Su­preme Court’s move in Fish­er to broad tol­er­ance for policies pro­mot­ing ra­cial di­versity, this fear of a ju­di­cial at­tack has now been largely laid to rest.

Uni­versity lead­ers, schol­ars, civil rights groups, and oth­ers should work to­geth­er to make sure that when pref­er­ence policies are used, they are used openly; that they are de­signed to be­ne­fit prom­ising dis­ad­vant­aged stu­dents of all races; and that aca­dem­ic­ally vul­ner­able minor­ity stu­dents are no longer misled about their pro­spects by col­leges seek­ing to raise their di­versity num­bers.

Richard Sander, a UCLA law pro­fess­or, and Stu­art Taylor Jr., a con­trib­ut­ing ed­it­or to Na­tion­al Journ­al, are coau­thors of the 2012 book Mis­match: How Af­firm­at­ive Ac­tion Hurts Stu­dents It’s In­ten­ded to Help, and Why Uni­versit­ies Won’t Ad­mit It.

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