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.