Race to the Flop—The Problem with Affirmative Action
THE ISSUE OF affirmative action in higher education—which is headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court today—presents a conundrum for the justices who, like most Americans, want racial diversity in colleges yet are uneasy with racial preferences.
For decades, the Supreme Court has struggled with various compromises, most recently settling on an arrangement that allows for the consideration of race as part of a candidate’s “holistic review.” But, as UCLA law professor Richard Sander and journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr. note in their perceptive new book, this accommodation has not limited racial preferences in practice.
To Sander and Taylor, the real problem is not just for those who are passed over when large racial preferences come into play, but for the beneficiaries themselves. In many cases, they say, minority students would perform better at less elite schools than in institutions where their incoming academic credentials put them at the bottom of their class. This is the “mismatch” that the book identifies: students provided sizeable admissions preferences struggle academically.
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Despite a somewhat melodramatic subtitle—“how affirmative action hurts students it’s intended to help”—the book presents a nuanced treatment of the issue. The authors do not claim, and the evidence does not support, the idea that all beneficiaries of affirmative action are worse off at selective schools. Indeed, there is a wide body of evidence that suggests that students attending more selective colleges have greater resources showered on them, are more likely (controlling for incoming academic records) to graduate, more likely to have higher earnings, and are more likely to join America’s leadership class.
One widely cited study authored by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, and referenced in Mismatch, illustrates the benefits that some minority and disadvantaged students receive from elite colleges. The study’s authors questioned the worth of attending a selective college; studies show that students admitted to colleges with high average SAT scores but who instead attended schools with lower average scores earned just as much as students who attended high SAT schools. But for black and Hispanic students and those with parents with less than 16 years of education, the pattern breaks down; these students do receive a wage premium if they attend selective schools, perhaps because “highly selective colleges provide access to networks for minority students and for students from disadvantaged family backgrounds that are otherwise not available to them.”