Racial Preferences by the Numbers
Two researchers lay out the data on affirmative action in college admissions.


It’s hard to get a straight answer as to how pervasive racial preferences are. On the one hand, many academics say preferences hardly even exist — they’re just a tie-breaker that admissions officers use on rare occasions. On the other hand, the same academics often say preferences are crucial to diversity, and their elimination would wreak havoc on campuses nationwide. Perhaps nowhere has this bizarre contradiction been on starker display than in No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal — a book that manages, despite this contradiction, to shed light on various controversies in higher ed.

Using the National Study of College Experience (NSCE) — a collection of information from eight anonymous elite colleges — authors Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford are able to calculate various applicants’ odds of getting into a school. They discover some mildly interesting trends regarding social class (more on that later), but their results for race are truly stunning. After academic performance and demographic factors have been taken into account, black applicants are more than five times as likely as whites to be accepted at NSCE private schools, and 220 times as likely to be accepted at NSCE public schools. Asian applicants, meanwhile, are only about a third as likely as whites to get big envelopes from private institutions, and one-fifth as likely to gain admission to public ones.

Putting preferences in terms of test scores, at private schools, blacks get an advantage, compared to whites, worth 310 SAT points (out of 1600), Hispanics an advantage of 130, and Asians a disadvantage of 140. At public schools, the authors present the difference in ACT points: blacks 3.8 (out of 36), Hispanics 0.3, Asians –3.4.

If we look at students who actually matriculate, blacks are far more likely than whites to come from the bottom 80 percent of their high-school classes (27 percent versus 12 percent), have high-school GPAs of B+ or below (32 versus 18 percent), and have SAT scores below 1000 (21 versus 2 percent).

The logical conclusion from this mountain of evidence is obvious: Top-of-the-line schools use severe racial preferences. This shouldn’t be all that shocking; although colleges usually keep quiet about the degree to which they prefer blacks and Hispanics over Asians and whites, anecdotes and numbers have been trickling out for years. Even when California banned racial preferences, its state universities didn’t stop using them. Last year, a UCLA professor resigned from the school’s admissions committee in protest of its flouting the law and issued an 89-page report explaining his reasons. Few schools outright deny using preferences, and the Supreme Court allows the practice. The Center for Equal Opportunity has calculated the extent of countless schools’ preference policies, usually concluding that black and Hispanic candidates get a significant advantage.

But the authors resist this conclusion. Espenshade told an interviewer for the Inside Higher Ed website that he doesn’t have “smoking gun” evidence that Asians are discriminated against, claiming that factors he wasn’t able to include in his analysis — letters of recommendation, etc. — might have been so much worse for Asians that they explained the gap. The book makes a similar argument about blacks and Hispanics, going so far as to bust out the old tie-breaker meme in this jawdroppingly absurd passage:

It would be a mistake to interpret the data . . . as meaning that elite college admissions officers are necessarily giving extra weight to black and Hispanic candidates just because they belong to underrepresented minority groups. This may occur from time to time, especially in situations where two applicants are otherwise equally well qualified. But in our judgment, it is more likely that a proper assessment of these data is that the labels “black” and “Hispanic” are proxies for a constellation of other factors in a candidate’s application folder that we do not observe. These unobserved qualities — perhaps having overcome disadvantage and limited opportunities or experiencing challenging family or schooling circumstances — may be positively correlated with the chances of being admitted when a holistic review of an applicant’s total materials is conducted.