The Agenda

Brief Note on Large Racial Preferences

Adam Liptak’s recent article on race and college admissions is somewhat peculiar. Liptak opens with a vivid portrait of Alison Fisher, the 22-year-old Texan who is the plaintiff in a legal challenge against the admissions policies of the University of Texas. He then goes on to offer an impressionistic take on the larger debate over racial preferences:

Admissions officers at colleges and universities almost universally endorse the idea that students from diverse backgrounds learn from each other, overcome stereotypes, and in so doing prepare themselves for leadership positions in society. Many critics of affirmative action say that there is at best a weak correlation between race and having a range of views presented in the classroom.

Others say the Constitution does not permit the government to sort people by race, no matter how worthy its goal. “While racial diversity on college campuses is beneficial, it cannot be attained by racial discrimination,” said Edward Blum, an adviser to Ms. Fisher and a driving force behind the Fisher case.

The competing arguments are hard to test, but a recent visit to a freshman seminar at the University of Texas at Austin suggested that the intellectual life of undergraduates there is varied and vibrant. [Emphasis added]

At this point, Liptak admiringly recounts a spirited exchange of views in one UT classroom. It turns out, however, that Richard Sander of UCLA Law School and Stuart Taylor Jr., a well-regarded journalist, have just published Mismatch, a rigorous effort to determine the impact of large racial preferences on student outcomes. And their findings strongly suggest that critics of large racial preferences have been taking the wrong tack. Liptak writes:

The university said Ms. Fisher would not have been admitted even if race had played no role in the process, and it questioned whether she has suffered the sort of injury that gives her standing to sue. 

Sander and Taylor identify another class of students who have suffered the sort of injury from large racial preferences that might give them standing to sue, namely the notional beneficiaries of large racial preferences. The following is drawn from a recent Atlantic post by Sander and Taylor that summarizes the mismatch thesis:

Research on the mismatch problem was almost non-existent until the mid-1990s; it has developed rapidly in the past half-dozen years, especially among labor economists. To cite just a few examples of the findings:

* Black college freshmen are more likely to aspire to science or engineering careers than are white freshmen, but mismatch causes blacks to abandon these fields at twice the rate of whites

* Blacks who start college interested in pursuing a doctorate and an academic career are twice as likely to be derailed from this path if they attend a school where they are mismatched.

* About half of black college students rank in the bottom 20 percent of their classes (and the bottom 10 percent in law school).

* Black law school graduates are four times as likely to fail bar exams as are whites; mismatch explains half of this gap.

* Interracial friendships are more likely to form among students with relatively similar levels of academic preparation; thus, blacks and Hispanics are more socially integrated on campuses where they are less academically mismatched.

* Given the severity of the mismatch problem, and the importance of diversity issues to university leaders, one might expect that understanding and addressing mismatch would be at the very top of the academic agenda. 

Sander and Taylor draw on the experience of UCLA in the years following the passage of Proposition 209, a ballot measure that banned the use of racial preferences in college admissions, to illustrate their point. Champions of preferences argued that elite public universities like UCLA would experience a precipitous drop in the enrollment of African American and Latino students, and there was indeed a drop. But something else happened as well:

Throughout these crises, university administrators constantly fed agitation against the preference ban by emphasizing the drop in undergraduate minority admissions. Never did the university point out one overwhelming fact: The total number of black and Hispanic students receiving bachelor’s degrees were the same for the five classes after Prop 209 as for the five classes before.

As Sander and Taylor go on to explain, a number of things happened:

(1) While the number of black and Latino freshmen decreased, the students who enrolled were far more likely to graduate as they better-matched their fellows students in preparation for academic work.

(2) The number of admitted black and Latino students who decided to accept UCLA’s offer increased dramatically. This is particularly noteworthy, as many of these students had academic qualifications that would have allowed them to attend a number of other selective schools. Sander and Taylor hypothesize that these strong students were eager to attend a school where the ban on preferences would allow them to avoid the stigma of a preference. 

(3) Some minority students who were not admitted as first-year students attended less selective schools that were a better academic fit; and having succeeded at these other schools, a fair number then transferred to UCLA to complete their degrees. 

Rather than celebrate this outcome, UCLA took a very different tack:

Prop 209 changed the minority experience at UCLA from one of frequent failure to much more consistent success. The school granted as many bachelor degrees to minority students as it did before Prop 209 while admitting many fewer and thus dramatically reducing failure and drop-out rates. It was able, in other words, to greatly reduce mismatch.

But university officials were unable or unwilling to advertise this fact. They regularly issued statements suggesting that Prop 209′s consequences had caused unalloyed harm to minorities, and they suppressed data on actual student performance. The university never confronted the mismatch problem, and rather than engage in a candid discussion of the true costs and benefits of a ban on preferences, it engineered secret policies to violate Prop 209′s requirement that admissions be colorblind.

In my view, Sander and Taylor’s work represents the most compelling case against large racial preferences. Unlike many other conservatives, I am sympathetic to the University of Texas’s view that it should generally be left free to shape its own admissions policies. Yet the evidence raised by Sander and Taylor suggests that the damage large racial preferences do to the life prospects of students from underrepresented backgrounds is sufficiently great to warrant intervention. Ideally, the plaintiff in a case against racial preferences shouldn’t be a student like Alison Fisher. Rather, it should be the class of hard-working and ambitious students who were admitted to the University of Texas yet who found themselves unable to complete a four-year degree, despite the fact that they were entirely capable of doing so at another selective college or university. 


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