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.
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
North Korea Threatens H-Bomb Test Over Pacific
2 days ago

"North Korea said on Friday it might test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean after President Donald Trump vowed to destroy the reclusive country, with leader Kim Jong Un promising to make Trump pay dearly for his threats. Kim did not specify what action he would take against the United States or Trump, whom he called a 'mentally deranged U.S. dotard' in the latest bout of insults the two leaders have traded in recent weeks."

Trump Makes Good on Promise of New North Korea Sanctions
3 days ago

President Trump this afternoon announced another round of sanctions on North Korea, calling the regime "a continuing threat." The executive order, which Trump relayed to Congress, bans any ship or plane that has visited North Korea from visiting the United States within 180 days. The order also authorizes sanctions on any financial institution doing business with North Korea, and permits the secretaries of State and the Treasury to sanction any person involved in trading with North Korea, operating a port there, or involved in a variety of industries there.

Trump Promises More Sanctions on North Korea
3 days ago

In response to a reporter's question, President Trump said "he’ll be looking to impose further financial penalties on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic tests. ... The U.N. has passed two resolutions recently aimed at squeezing the North Korean economy by cutting off oil, labor and exports to the nation." Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that South Korea's unification ministry is sending an $8m aid package aimed at infants and pregnant women in North Korea. The "humanitarian gesture [is] at odds with calls by Japan and the US for unwavering economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang."

FLOTUS to Speak at UN Luncheon
4 days ago
Trump Meets with UN Leaders
4 days ago

President Trump on Tuesday night met with UN Secretary Guterres and President of the General Assembly Miroslav Lajcak. In both cases, as per releases from the White House, Trump pressed them on the need to reform the UN bureaucracy.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.