How to Think About Affirmative Action Like an Economist

Does affirmative action cheat hard-working white students? Does it hurt minorities? Does it even work? That's the high-stakes debate happening now at the Supreme Court. Here's how a stoic economist might think about it.615_Michigan_Affirmative_Action_Reuters.jpg


If you're hoping today's affirmative action case at the Supreme Court will finally settle the issue of whether race should play a role in college admissions ... tough luck. Justice Anthony Kennedy is widely considered the swing vote this time around, so chances are we're looking at a mushy compromise decision. And that means we're also bound to keep on having the same visceral arguments about skin color and academic opportunity that have been raging in this country for half a century. 

So let's do a bit of debate prep. Below are six controversial and familiar questions about affirmative action. You've probably heard how lawyers or politicians think about some of them. How about an economist? In 2005, Harvard's Roland Fryer and Brown University's Glenn Loury published a paper titled "Affirmative Action and Its Mythologies," which serves as a wonderful roadmap for considering the costs and benefits of letting schools factor race into their selection criteria. The way they engage these issues can help us all form our opinions about them a little more clearly, whether we agree with their conclusions or not. 

(1) Does affirmative action discourage minorities from studying hard? 

Legally speaking, modern affirmative action programs at universities are supposed to be about creating diversity -- and only diversity. Fixing the damage done by America's history of discrimination isn't technically part of the rationale. But get affirmative action supporters away from a courtroom, and they'll probably admit they're interested in righting past wrongs by giving minority students a helping hand in college admissions. 

Some argue, though, that affirmative action actually does a disservice to black, Hispanic, and other minority students because it lowers standards. By giving kids easier entry onto campus, the argument goes, we're creating incentives for them not to study, and thereby doing more harm than good.

Fryer and Loury allow that, at least in corporate affirmative action programs, giving minority job applicants a leg up might convince them they don't need to invest in job skills. But they also suggest that the promise of affirmative action could encourage some applicants to get a good education and apply for positions that might have otherwise seemed closed off to them. 

The same goes for potential college students. Some teenagers could theoretically decide they only need a B average, instead of an A-, to get into a solid university and slack off as a result. Or, knowing they'd probably be rewarded for their efforts, they might be encouraged to do the extra work to get into the school of their dreams. 

In short, we can't just reason our way to an easy answer.

University of Chicago economist Brent Hickman has attempted to use SAT scores to investigate these issues, and his findings provide an equally complicated answer. He concludes:

AA practices in US college admissions narrow the gap between median SAT scores among minorities and non-minorities by 14%. They discourage achievement among minority students at the upper and lower extremes of the score distribution, while encouraging students in the middle to score higher. The two effects balance each other out, so that virtually no change occurs for average minority SAT scores. [My emphasis]

This is just one working paper, but it offers a sense of the dynamics at play. Does affirmative action encourage minority students to work more or less? Possibly both. 

(2) Can we really have affirmative action without quotas? 

Quota. It's a word everybody hates. In the seminal affirmative action case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court struck down the use of concrete quotas for admitting minorities into school. Today, colleges instead argue that they're looking for a "critical mass" of minority applicants to ensure a certain baseline level of diversity on campus. The way they frame it, the number is just a goal.

Quota, goal ... it's a distinction without much difference in practice, argue Fryer and Loury. It comes down to how college administrators enforce their own policies. If a school has a "quota," but doesn't hand serious punishments to the admissions office for failing to meet it, then they're really using a more flexible system. But if a school sets a fuzzy "goal," then fires the admissions director who fails to hit the target, then they've essentially created a quota. These sorts of internal machinations are impossible for most outsiders to observe in action. Moreover, they may all just be implicit understandings. And the semantics used to describe a University's official MO certainly doesn't change them. 

(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.

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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