A Very Simple Affirmative Action Proposal

by Reihan Salam

I find it extremely unlikely that Fisher v. University of Texas will lead to the end of racial preferences. Texas is a majority-minority state, and many other states will soon follow. Many believe that ending (de facto) racial preferences would lead to a sharp reduction in the number of black and Hispanic undergraduates at UT, the crown jewel of public higher education in Texas, and I have no reason to doubt them. Over the past few days, we’ve been having a debate over the mismatch hypothesis, the notion that large racial preferences can actually harm their beneficiaries. Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. have warned that large preferences can lead students who might have flourished at a competitive university to instead attend a hypercompetitive university, where they are less likely to succeed. Suffice it to say, the mismatch hypothesis is extremely controversial, and other scholars, including Matthew Chingos, have found it wanting. According to Chingos, students with the same qualifications are far more likely to graduate from more selective colleges than they are from less selective colleges, which suggests that the mismatch problem is overblown. I’m more sympathetic to Sander and Taylor than Chingos, for a number of reasons, but I think it is far to say that the debate over mismatch is not settled. 

With all of this in mind, I’m agnostic on whether or not selective colleges or universities ought to abolish preferences. Frankly, the share of students who attend selective schools is quite small as a share of all students enrolled in post-secondary education, and I’m of the view that conservatives have bigger fish to fry, like the abysmally low quality of K-12 public education. I favor a simple reform, which would ideally apply to all students admitted to selective colleges or universities.When offering admission to candidates, colleges and universities should provide detailed information on how the admitted students compares to other admitted students in terms of entering credentials, and how well previous students with comparable credentials had fared. Sander and Taylor make the case for transparency in their book Mismatch:

Schools should provide any information they have available or can reasonably obtain on learning outcomes for past students similar to the admitted student. For example, a student admitted to a college with a given SAT score and high school GPA should receive its best estimate of the past graduation rates of comparable students, their college GPAs, and their rates of attrition from intended majors. Ideally, schools should also be encouraged (perhaps required as part of the accreditation process) to gather and make available data on students’ postcollege outcomes: What proportion of past students similar to the applicant ended up attending graduate school? What proportion were employed five years after graduation, and what were the median earnings of those graduates? For law schools this would include data on bar passage rates or, preferably, bar scores. For medical schools this would include data on the outcomes of national boards and eventual rates of licensing in chosen fields. For colleges this would include scores on exams taken in anticipation of graduate school (e.g., GRE scores) and any results from participation in exams like the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

The goal of transparency wouldn’t be to discourage students from attending selective schools. If Chingos is right, the news would in most cases be more encouraging than discouraging. Yet students with below average levels of academic preparation would have a clearer sense of the obstacles they face, and that they’d be wise to take advantage of enrichment resources on campus to keep up with their better-prepared classmates. It’s not just beneficiaries of racial preferences who’d profit from access information of this kind. So would athletes and benefits of other preferences, like legacy preferences and regional preferences. Indeed, I suspect all students would benefit from having some sense of where they stand in the pecking order. One often hears about students who resent the suggestion that they’ve benefited from racial (or other) preferences. Transparency could do a great deal to address these concerns. If I know that I’ve benefited from a preference, and I’ve made an informed decision about what that will likely mean for my academic prospects, I’d presumably feel far more secure. If I can’t stand the idea of benefiting from a preference, however, I might instead attend a school where I’d start at the top of heap. The ability to make an informed decision in accordance with your values is no small thing. 

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