The Painful Truth About Affirmative Action

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Why racial preferences in college admissions hurt minority students -- and shroud the education system in dishonesty.

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Affirmative action in university admissions started in the late 1960s as a noble effort to jump-start racial integration and foster equal opportunity. But somewhere along the decades, it has lost its way.

Over time, it has become a political lightning rod and one of our most divisive social policies. It has evolved into a regime of racial preferences at almost all selective schools -- preferences so strikingly large and politically unpopular that administrators work hard to conceal them. The largest, most aggressive preferences are usually reserved for upper-middle-class minorities on whom they often inflict significant academic harm, whereas more modest policies that could help working-class and poor people of all races are given short shrift. Academic leaders often find themselves flouting the law and acting in ways that aggravate the worst consequences of large preferences. They have become prisoners of a system that many privately deplore for its often-perverse unintended effects but feel they cannot escape.

The single biggest problem in this system -- a problem documented by a vast and growing array of research -- is the tendency of large preferences to boomerang and harm their intended beneficiaries. Large preferences often place students in environments where they can neither learn nor compete effectively -- even though these same students would thrive had they gone to less competitive but still quite good schools.

The student who would flourish at, say, Wake Forest, instead finds himself at Duke, where the professors are not teaching at a pace designed for him.

We refer to this problem as "mismatch," a word that largely explains why, even though blacks are more likely to enter college than are whites with similar backgrounds, they will usually get much lower grades, rank toward the bottom of the class, and far more often drop out. Because of mismatch, racial preference policies often stigmatize minorities, reinforce pernicious stereotypes, and undermine the self-confidence of beneficiaries, rather than creating the diverse racial utopias so often advertised in college campus brochures.

The mismatch effect happens when a school extends to a student such a large admissions preference -- sometimes because of a student's athletic prowess or legacy connection to the school, but usually because of the student's race -- that the student finds himself in a class where he has weaker academic preparation than nearly all of his classmates. The student who would flourish at, say, Wake Forest or the University of Richmond, instead finds himself at Duke, where the professors are not teaching at a pace designed for him -- they are teaching to the "middle" of the class, introducing terms and concepts at a speed that is unnerving even to the best-prepared student.

The student who is underprepared relative to others in that class falls behind from the start and becomes increasingly lost as the professor and his classmates race ahead. His grades on his first exams or papers put him at the bottom of the class. Worse, the experience may well induce panic and self-doubt, making learning even harder.

When explaining to friends how academic mismatch works, we sometimes say: Think back to high school and recall a subject at which you did fine but did not excel. Suppose you had suddenly been transferred into an advanced class in that subject with a friend who was about at your level and 18 other students who excelled in the subject and had already taken the intermediate course you just skipped. You would, in all likelihood, soon be struggling to keep up. The teacher might give you some extra attention but, in class, would be focusing on the median student, not you and your friend, and would probably be covering the material at what, to you, was a bewildering pace.

Wouldn't you have quickly fallen behind and then continued to fall farther and farther behind as the school year progressed? Now assume that you and the friend who joined you at the bottom of that class were both black and everyone else was Asian or white. How would that have felt? Might you have imagined that this could reinforce in the minds of your classmates the stereotype that blacks are weak students?

So we have a terrible confluence of forces putting students in classes for which they aren't prepared, causing them to lose confidence and underperform even more while, at the same time, consolidating the stereotype that they are inherently poor students. And you can see how at each level there are feedback effects that reinforce the self-doubts of all the students who are struggling.

Of course, being surrounded by very able peers can confer benefits, too -- the atmosphere may be more intellectually challenging, and one may learn a lot from observing others. We have no reason to think that small preferences are not, on net, beneficial. But contemporary racial preferences used by selective schools -- especially those extended to blacks and Native Americans -- tend to be extremely large, often amounting to the equivalent of hundreds of SAT points.

At the University of Texas, whose racial preference programs come before the Supreme Court for oral argument on October 10, the typical black student receiving a race preference placed at the 52nd percentile of the SAT; the typical white was at the 89th percentile. In other words, Texas is putting blacks who score at the middle of the college-aspiring population in the midst of highly competitive students. This is the sort of academic gap where mismatch flourishes. And, of course, mismatch does not occur merely with racial preferences; it shows up with large preferences of all types.

Research on the mismatch problem was almost non-existent until the mid-1990s; it has developed rapidly in the past half-dozen years, especially among labor economists. To cite just a few examples of the findings:

  • Black college freshmen are more likely to aspire to science or engineering careers than are white freshmen, but mismatch causes blacks to abandon these fields at twice the rate of whites.
  • Blacks who start college interested in pursuing a doctorate and an academic career are twice as likely to be derailed from this path if they attend a school where they are mismatched.
  • About half of black college students rank in the bottom 20 percent of their classes (and the bottom 10 percent in law school).
  • Black law school graduates are four times as likely to fail bar exams as are whites; mismatch explains half of this gap.
  • Interracial friendships are more likely to form among students with relatively similar levels of academic preparation; thus, blacks and Hispanics are more socially integrated on campuses where they are less academically mismatched.

Given the severity of the mismatch problem, and the importance of diversity issues to university leaders, one might expect that understanding and addressing mismatch would be at the very top of the academic agenda.

But in fact it is a largely invisible issue. With striking uniformity, university leaders view discussion of the mismatch problem as a threat to affirmative action and to racial peace on campuses, and therefore a subject to be avoided. They suppress data and even often ostracize faculty who attempt to point out the seriousness of mismatch. (See, for instance, the case of UT professor Lino Graglia, who was condemned by university officials after he observed that black and Mexican-American students were "not academically competitive" with their white peers.) We believe that the willful denial of the mismatch issue is as big a problem as mismatch itself.

A powerful example of these problems comes from UCLA, an elite school that used large racial preferences until the Proposition 209 ban took effect in 1998. The anticipated, devastating effects of the ban on preferences at UCLA and Berkeley on minorities were among the chief exhibits of those who attacked Prop 209 as a racist measure. Many predicted that over time blacks and Hispanics would virtually disappear from the UCLA campus.

And there was indeed a post-209 drop in minority enrollment as preferences were phased out. Although it was smaller and more short-lived than anticipated, it was still quite substantial: a 50 percent drop in black freshman enrollment and a 25 percent drop for Hispanics. These drops precipitated ongoing protests by students and continual hand-wringing by administrators, and when, in 2006, there was a particularly low yield of black freshmen, the campus was roiled with agitation, so much so that the university reinstituted covert, illegal racial preferences.

Throughout these crises, university administrators constantly fed agitation against the preference ban by emphasizing the drop in undergraduate minority admissions. Never did the university point out one overwhelming fact: The total number of black and Hispanic students receiving bachelor's degrees were the same for the five classes after Prop 209 as for the five classes before.

How was this possible? First, the ban on preferences produced better-matched students at UCLA, students who were more likely to graduate. The black four-year graduation rate at UCLA doubled from the early 1990s to the years after Prop 209.

Second, strong black and Hispanic students accepted UCLA offers of admission at much higher rates after the preferences ban went into effect; their choices seem to suggest that they were eager to attend a school where the stigma of a preference could not be attached to them. This mitigated the drop in enrollment.

Third, many minority students who would have been admitted to UCLA with weak qualifications before Prop 209 were admitted to less elite schools instead; those who proved their academic mettle were able to transfer up to UCLA and graduate there.

Thus, Prop 209 changed the minority experience at UCLA from one of frequent failure to much more consistent success. The school granted as many bachelor degrees to minority students as it did before Prop 209 while admitting many fewer and thus dramatically reducing failure and drop-out rates. It was able, in other words, to greatly reduce mismatch.

But university officials were unable or unwilling to advertise this fact. They regularly issued statements suggesting that Prop 209's consequences had caused unalloyed harm to minorities, and they suppressed data on actual student performance. The university never confronted the mismatch problem, and rather than engage in a candid discussion of the true costs and benefits of a ban on preferences, it engineered secret policies to violate Prop 209's requirement that admissions be colorblind.

The odd dynamics behind UCLA's official behavior exist throughout the contemporary academic world. The quest for racial sensitivity has created environments in which it is not only difficult but downright risky for students and professors, not to mention administrators, to talk about what affirmative action has become and about the nature and effects of large admissions preferences. Simply acknowledging the fact that large preferences exist can trigger accusations that one is insulting or stigmatizing minority groups; suggesting that these preferences have counterproductive effects can lead to the immediate inference that one wants to eliminate or cut back efforts to help minority students.

The desire to be sensitive has sealed off failing programs from the scrutiny and dialogue necessary for healthy progress. It has also made racial preferences a force for economic inequality: academically well-prepared working class and poor Asian and white students are routinely passed over in favor of black and Hispanic students who are more affluent as well as less well-prepared.

The way racial preferences affect student outcomes is only part of the story. Equally relevant is the way the academic community has proved unequal to the task of reform -- showing great resourcefulness in blocking access to information, enforcing homogenous preference policies across institutions, and evading even legal restrictions on the use of preferences. All of this makes the quest for workable reforms -- which are most likely to come from the Supreme Court -- both more complex and more interesting than one might at first suspect.


This post is adapted from Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It.

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Presented by

Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.

Richard Sander is a UCLA law professor and economist who studies the effects of racial preferences. Stuart Taylor Jr. is a Washington journalist, author, and Brookings Institution nonresident senior fellow.

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