An Elite Admissions Scenario

In 2005, Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung published an article in Social Science Quarterly on “The Opportunity Cost of Admission Preferences at Elite Universities” that has gained renewed relevance in light of recent conversations concerning the future of racial preferences in college admissions. The findings are dated, not just because the article was published eight years ago but because its simulations were based on data from the late 1990s. Moreover, they apply to a very small number of elite private research universities, as opposed to one of the selective state universities that enroll very different student populations. But the results are interesting all the same:

The result of eliminating admission bonuses for African-American and Hispanic applicants would be dramatic. Acceptance rates for African-American candidates would fall from 33.7 percent to 12.2 percent, a decline of almost two-thirds, and the proportion of African-American students in the admitted class would drop from 9.0 to 3.3 percent. The acceptance rate for Hispanic applicants would be cut in half—from 26.8 percent to 12.9 percent, and Hispanics would comprise just 3.8 of all admitted students versus an actual proportion of 7.9 percent. If admitting such small numbers of qualified African-American and Hispanic students reduced applications and the yield from minority candidates in subsequent years, the effect of eliminating affirmative action at elite universities on the racial and ethnic composition of enrolled students would be magnified beyond the results presented here.

White plaintiffs in Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) argued that they were unfairly denied admission while some less qualified minority students were accepted. Our results show that removing consideration of race would have a minimal effect on white applicants to elite universities. The number of accepted white students would increase by 2.4 percent, and the white acceptance rate would rise by just 0.5 percentage points—from 23.8 to 24.3 percent. Many rejected white applicants may feel they would have been accepted had it not been for affirmative action, but such perceptions probably exaggerate the reality. It would be difficult to tell from the share of white students on campus whether or not the admission office was engaged in affirmative action.

Asian applicants are the biggest winners if race is no longer considered in admissions. Nearly four out of every five places in the admitted class not taken by African-American and Hispanic students would be filled by Asians. We noted earlier that Asian candidates are at a disadvantage in admission compared to their white, African-American, and Hispanic counterparts. Removing this disadvantage at the same time preferences for African Americans and Hispanics are eliminated results in a significant gain in the acceptance rate for Asian students—from 17.6 percent to 23.4 percent. Asians, who comprised 29.5 percent of total applicants in 1997, would make up 31.5 percent of accepted students in the simulation, compared with an actual proportion of 23.7 percent. Other aspects of admitted students, including the distribution of SAT scores and, especially, the proportions of students who are athletes or legacies, are hardly affected by affirmative action.

Espenshade and Chung characterize Asian applicants as “the biggest winners,” yet if one embraces the mismatch hypothesis, one could argue that African American and Hispanic students admitted without preferences would also be winners, as there is some reason to believe that they would be more likely to graduate and they would no longer be forced to labor under the impression that they benefited from admission preferences. Another view, however, is that because we are talking about a small number of elite private research universities, graduation rates are less of a concern, as mismatch operates at the level of the major, i.e., “mismatched” students who intend to complete a degree in the hard sciences will switch their major to a less demanding discipline, and graduation rates will remain fairly high, thanks to a combination of resources and peer effects.

My take is that the problem is not with racial preferences for members of underrepresented groups per se, but rather with large racial preferences, as large racial preferences raise the risks associated with mismatch. Yet rather than simply defer to selective colleges and universities, I would embrace the policy recommendations of Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.: (1) make sure that preferences are transparent, so that students who benefit from them are aware that they are being given a boost; (2) provide students with data concerning educational outcomes for students admitted with similar academic track records, so that they can make an informed decision; (3) require that racial preferences be no larger than preferences based on household income or some other indicator of economic deprivation.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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