Politics & Policy

University Affirmative-Action Admissions Policies Are Toxic

(Dreamstime)

Last week, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the latest round of the Fisher vs. University of Texas case over whether race can be used as a criterion in college admissions policies. The defenders of affirmative-action admissions policies have generally been unwilling to discuss the impact these policies have on black students. Indeed, when Justice Antonin Scalia raised the possibility in oral arguments that these policies actually harm black students by placing many of them at schools that are too demanding, he was immediately vilified.

“Justice Scalia Suggests Blacks Belong at ‘Slower’ Colleges,” ran a typical headline at Mother Jones. Senate minority leader Harry Reid called Scalia’s line of questioning “racist,” and Georgia Democratic congressman John Lewis said Scalia’s “evident bias was very troubling,” leading him to question Scalia’s “ability to make impartial judgments.”

Here is what Scalia actually said:

There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well. One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas.

The brief in question was submitted by UCLA law professor Richard Sander. A one-time proponent of affirmative action, Sander changed his position when he studied its effects on black students at American law schools. Sander found that, because of these schools’ commitment to increasing diversity, the median black student accepted by them placed in the lowest decile of white students admitted — and this translated into low class rankings and low rates of passing the bar exam for these black students. Sander presented evidence that if black students who had attended a top-tier law school had instead attended a lower-tier school, they would have been more likely to pass the bar exam.

RELATED: Scalia Practices Reason, Not Racism

It’s important to understand that this “mismatch thesis” in no way implies an inability of black students to succeed at top-tier academic institutions, as Scalia’s critics have disingenuously implied. It suggests only that affirmative-action admissions policies disproportionately accept students with lower-than-average test scores and grades. As a result, they are not adequately prepared for the rigors of top-tier universities. This sets these students up for potential failure where they might otherwise have succeeded. Simply put, the mismatch thesis asserts that affirmative action is doing more harm than good for many of the black students admitted as a result of these policies.

While recent evidence strongly supports his conclusion, Sander’s brief detailed how the educational arm of the law community has done everything possible to undermine studies of the mismatch thesis. When scholars sought to use the California Bar’s database, the Society of American Law Teachers and deans from California law schools strongly objected. Indeed, the Law School Admissions Council stopped sending LSAT scores to the California Bar in order to assure that any effort to study bar examinees after 2008 would be crippled by incomplete information.

Just as at law schools, many selective colleges dramatically lower admissions standards to meet their diversity goals. At Duke, the median SAT score of black students admitted in 2002 was 140 points below that of white students, placing the median black student’s score within the lowest 10 percent of white student scores.

RELATED: Casting for Affirmative Action Votes in Fisher v. University of Texas (Fisher II)

In a similar vein, before the Supreme Court forced changes to the University of Michigan’s admissions policy, the school placed little importance on SAT scores in order to provide maximum freedom to assemble the ideal “diverse” student body. As a result, only half of the black students admitted had an SAT score of at least 1000 — while virtually all white students admitted scored at that level.

SAT scores are a strong predictor of college performance. At the University of Texas there is a strong positive correlation between SAT scores and freshman academic performance: Low SAT scores translated into a C average while high scores translated into an A- average. At Michigan, for the class of 2003, one-quarter of black students had a C- or lower average and half were on academic probation at some point in their university careers. By contrast, three-quarters of the white students achieved at least a B average. At the Ivy League schools and most selective liberal arts colleges, a study found that only one in eight students with an SAT score below 1200 obtained an A- average while almost half of those with at least a 1300 SAT score did so. The evidence clearly shows, then, that students who enter college with lower SAT scores will on average perform worse there than their peers; weak academic preparation results in weak academic performance.

#share#The court was presented another brief — summarized in a New York Times essay by Sheen S. Levine and David Stark, headlined “Diversity Makes You Brighter” — which argued that having a diverse student body improves the learning and performance of white students as well. “Diversity improves the way people think,” Levine and Stark wrote. “By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Our findings show that such diversity actually benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike.” These benefits are derived, according to the authors, from the interactions between members of different racial groups.

A similar argument was offered a decade ago in support of the University of Michigan’s admissions policies.

RELATED: The Myth That ‘Diversity’ Improves Higher Education Should Finally Be Laid to Rest

Unfortunately, current affirmative-action programs have not generated diversity in the classroom. Weakly performing black students are discouraged from majoring in some fields and demanding courses. These students avoid courses in which they fear that they will be expected to give the “black” viewpoint. In addition, studies find that students tend to form the strongest friendships with students who have similar academic preparation and interests. As a result, poor academic performance reduces black and white student interaction. This helps explain the troubling fact reported by Levine and Stark: At the University of Texas there is “zero or just one African-American student in 90 percent of its typical undergraduate classrooms.”

When forced to confront this data, affirmative-action proponents point to a study by former Ivy League school presidents William Bowen and Derek Bok, which found that black students were more likely to graduate if they attended more selective schools. But the study seemed unconcerned with measures of performance other than graduation — even though the authors had data that black students earned much lower grades than white students while in school and that class rank had a strong influence on future earnings. In particular, 20 years after graduation, black men who ranked in the top third of their class were found to earn 70 percent more than black men who ranked in the lowest third.

RELATED: A Very Simple Affirmative Action Proposal

Bowen and Bok’s study was based on data from the 1976 and 1989 entering classes. In order to update their work, in the mid-1990s, Stephen Cole and Elinor Barber were selected to assess what could be done to encourage more black students to pursue academic careers. They found that though entering black students were more likely to express interest in a teaching career than white students, their weaker class performance made it less likely they would receive the mentoring and positive reinforcement to continue on that path. Unfortunately, even though Harvard University Press was obligated to publish their findings in 2003, the executive secretary of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents told the Chronicle of Higher Education to discount the findings because of the authors’ ideological biases.

#related#Cole and Barber’s findings dovetail with the conclusion of Sander and others that black students at the most selective schools are less likely to complete science majors than comparable students who attended slightly less selective schools, as Scalia alluded to in his line of questioning. Indeed, when the American Economics Association commissioned two economists, one a proponent and one a skeptic, to summarize the evidence on the mismatch theory for their prestigious Journal of Economic Literature, that conclusion was unavoidable. “The evidence suggests that racial preferences are so aggressive that reshuffling some African American students to less-selective schools would improve some outcomes,” wrote authors Peter Arcidiacono and Michael Lovenheim. “The existing evidence indicates that such match effects may be particularly relevant for first-time bar passage and among undergraduates majoring in STEM fields.”

The current university affirmative-action admissions policies are favored by a predominantly liberal faculty uncomfortable with the prospect of teaching only privileged white students — but that should not excuse the result that these policies have harmful effects on the very students they purport to help. Current aggressive affirmative-action policies harm the career selection and earnings potential of many black students by placing them in situations for which they are academically unprepared; they also create a toxic campus environment. While ideally diversity can be beneficial to social interaction, the opposite occurs on most selective campuses. Weakly prepared black students gravitate to safe courses, safe majors, and safe social settings and have heightened sensitivity to perceived and real racial slights. And unfortunately, the poor performance of underprepared black students only reinforces the negative stereotypes many white students hold — further increasing tensions on campus. It is time to take a hard look at the downside of affirmative-action programs and find better ways to help black students move forward.

Robert Cherry — Robert Cherry is a professor of economics at Brooklyn College.

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