Affirmative Action Hurts Minorities the Most

While the Supreme Court is currently deciding the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas, it’s worth taking a look at the effectiveness of the practice.

In a new book Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, Richard Sander, a law professor and economist at UCLA and Stuart Taylor Jr., a Washington-based journalist, argue that the affirmative action policies of the past four decades have hurt Black and Latino students more than anyone else.

The argument is simple – by lowering the standards of admission, we are sending millions of Black and Latino students to universities that they are not prepared to be in. Instead of going to “less competitive but still quite good schools”, these minority students are admitted to elite universities where they are at a competitive disadvantage as compared with their White and Asian peers. In an excerpt published in The Atlantic, Sander and Taylor show mounting evidence from the past decade:

  • 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.

The most damning piece of evidence though is from California where, in 1998, Proposition 209 came into effect, banning the consideration of race, sex or ethnicity  for public employment, contracts and education. At UCLA, as expected, the number of enrolled Black and Latino students plummeted, but amazingly, “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” (read that again please).

Not only were the post-209 Black and Latino students at UCLA better matched to their university, they also did not have to live with the stigma of being affirmative action beneficiaries. Those who were not admitted to UCLA hopefully went to universities that were more suited to their academic level.

All of this makes sense when you consider the extent to which standards are lowered. In the University of Texas, for example, “the typical black student receiving a race preference placed at the 52nd percentile of the SAT; the typical white was at the 89th percentile”. The University is putting average Black students in the same environment as high achieving White students.

In other words, they’re being set up to fail.

Perhaps we can live with a small mismatch in the name of diversity when confronted with full-on systemic racism, but affirmative action has been taken too far. The mismatch is too great and its biggest victims are its intended beneficiaries. Does systemic racism still exist? Yes, but our current affirmative action strategy is not the solution.

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2 thoughts on “Affirmative Action Hurts Minorities the Most

  1. Difficult question. I left this comment on the Atlantic excerpt:

    SAT scores are a pretty terrible way to predict performance in college beyond the second year, though.
    I hope that you’ve controlled for other factors than race when you compared completion rates – things like personal economy, hours of work, student mental and physical health, friendships and peer relations on campus, family situation, access to mentors and tutors – ?

    Because if you haven’t, what you’re showing with the UCLA example may well just be that gifted black students from financially stable academic homes were diverted from other great colleges to UCLA. Which is great for UCLA, but hasn’t necessarily particularly helped black students as a group.

    Of course we need to change something, but I think we should be quite careful in our analysis of WHAT exactly to change.
    As long as white students as a group have advantages over other groups earlier in life, there will be a degree of “mis-match”. If we’re interested in equality I’m not sure the sole answer to that (besides addressing those earlier inequalities, obviously) is better “matching”.
    I think the universities can do a lot to be an environment where students from working class backgrounds and poorly funded schools are likely to do well. And I know the government could choose to let such students focus on their studies and not have to worry about cost of tuition, living, health care and so on.

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