Expert Commentary

Affirmative action in university admissions: Research roundup

2013 roundup of recent studies and papers on affirmative action, admissions, campus diversity and racial attitudes at U.S. universities.


In April 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment banning affirmative action policies in the state’s universities. The ruling follows up on Fisher v. University of Texas, a 2013 case in which the Court declined to make a comprehensive judgment on affirmative action, sending the case back to a lower court with instructions to apply “strict scrutiny” to the use of race in admissions.

The plaintiff in the 2013 case was Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. Texas residents ranked at the top of their high school class (usually the top 10%) are eligible for automatic admission and fill 75% of the available in-state spots. Those who do not meet this qualification are admitted based on factors such as academic achievement, extracurricular activities, cultural background and race. Fisher, who was part of the second group, believed that she was denied admission because of her race, claiming that several of her non-white high school classmates were admitted despite having lower grades. Her legal team argued that this is a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The United States District Court heard Fisher v. University of Texas in 2009 and ruled in favor of the university, as did the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 2011. In February 2012 the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and oral arguments took place in October 2012. The ruling in the case would technically only apply to public universities; but if the Court had ruled that affirmative action programs constitute racial discrimination, private universities would likely also be forbidden from using race in admission under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids racial discrimination in all programs that receive federal funding. (For more on this case, you can read the official transcript of the oral arguments as well as consult the SCOTUSblog.)

The case is only the latest wrinkle in a decades-old legal battle: In the 1978 case University of California Regents v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some affirmative action admissions programs were constitutional, but that race-based quotas were not. In a famous pair of cases in 2003 — Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger — the Court affirmed the right of the University of Michigan Law School to consider race as part of a “holistic review” of an application. At the same time, the Court ruled that the school’s undergraduate process, which automatically awarded 20 points to minority applicants, was unconstitutional. In two 2007 cases, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the Court ruled against programs that sought to use race as a “tiebreaker” for admission to oversubscribed public schools.

Research has shown that diversity experiences at college can have positive effects for students’ civic growth and their healthy participation in a globalized world. But even if institutions of higher education only used family income, not race, as their chief criterion for diversity, many structural challenges would remain. High school students from low-income families of all races are less likely to apply to universities. A 2012 study from Stanford University and the Harvard Kennedy School found that the “vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university.”

Below are several of the latest studies that examine some of the issues of affirmative action in university admissions and bias:


Affirmative Action and the Quality-Fit Tradeoff”
Arcidiacono, Peter; Lovenheim, Michael. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, February 2015.

Summary: “This paper reviews the literature on affirmative action in undergraduate education and law schools, focusing in particular on the tradeoff between the quality of an institution and the fit between a school and a student. We first discuss the conditions under which affirmative action for under-represented minorities (URM) could help or harm their educational outcomes. We then provide descriptive evidence on the extent of affirmative action in law schools, as well as a review of the contentious literature on how affirmative action affects URM student performance in law school. We present a simple selection model that we argue provides a useful framework for interpreting the disparate findings in this literature. The paper then turns to a similar discussion of affirmative action in undergraduate admissions, focusing on evidence of the extent of race-based admissions practices and the effect such preferences have on the quality of schools in which minority students enroll, graduation rates, college major and earnings. We pay much attention to the evidence from state-level bans on affirmative action and argue these bans are very informative about how affirmative action affects URM students. Finally, we discuss the evidence on “percent plans,” which several states have enacted in an attempt to replace affirmative action.”


Affirmative Action and Its Mythology
Fryer Jr., Roland G.; Loury, Glenn C. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, July 2005.

Summary: “For more than three decades, critics and supporters of affirmative action have fought for the moral high ground — through ballot initiatives and lawsuits, in state legislatures, and in varied courts of public opinion. The goal of this paper is to show the clarifying power of economic reasoning to dispel some myths and misconceptions in the racial affirmative action debates. We enumerate seven commonly held (but mistaken) views one often encounters in the folklore about affirmative action (affirmative action may involve goals and timelines, but definitely not quotas, e.g.). Simple economic arguments reveal these seven views to be more myth than fact.”


“Is There a ‘Workable’ Race-Neutral Alternative to Affirmative Action in College Admissions?”
Long, Mark C. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 2014. doi: 10.1002/pam.21800.

Abstract: “The 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case clarified when and how it is legally permissible for universities to use an applicant’s race or ethnicity in its admissions decisions. The court concluded that such use is permissible when ‘no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.’ This paper shows that replacing traditional affirmative action with a system that uses an applicant’s predicted likelihood of being an underrepresented racial minority as a proxy for the applicant’s actual minority status can yield an admitted class that has a lower predicted grade point average and likelihood of graduating than the class that would have been admitted using traditional affirmative action. This result suggests that race-neutral alternatives may not be ‘workable’ from the university’s perspective.”


Assessing the Potential Impact of a Nationwide Class-Based Affirmative Action System
Xiang, Alice; Rubin, Donald B. Statistical Science, 2015, Vol. 30. doi: 10.1214/15-STS514.

Abstract: “We examine the possible consequences of a change in law school admissions in the United States from an affirmative action system based on race to one based on socioeconomic class. Using data from the 1991–1996 Law School Admission Council Bar Passage Study, students were reassigned attendance by simulation to law school tiers by transferring the affirmative action advantage for black students to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The hypothetical academic outcomes for the students were then multiply-imputed to quantify the uncertainty of the resulting estimates. The analysis predicts dramatic decreases in the numbers of black students in top law school tiers, suggesting that class-based affirmative action is insufficient to maintain racial diversity in prestigious law schools. Furthermore, there appear to be no statistically significant changes in the graduation and bar passage rates of students in any demographic group. The results thus provide evidence that, other than increasing their representation in upper tiers, current affirmative action policies relative to a socioeconomic-based system neither substantially help nor harm minority academic outcomes, contradicting the predictions of the “mismatch” hypothesis, which asserts otherwise.”


“Affirmative Action Bans and the ‘Chilling Effect'”
Antonovics, Kate L.; Sander, Richard H. American Law and Economics Review, 2013, doi: 10.1093/aler/ahs020.

Abstract: “This paper examines whether California’s Proposition 209, which led to the 1998 ban on the use of racial preferences in admissions at the University of California (UC) system, lowered the value that underrepresented minorities placed on attending UC schools. In particular, we look for evidence of a chilling effect in minority yield rates (the probability of enrolling in a UC school conditional on being accepted) after Proposition 209. Using individual-level data on every freshman applicant to the UC system from 1995 to 2000, we find no evidence that yield rates fell for minorities relative to other students after Proposition 209, even after controlling for changes in student characteristics and changes in the set of UC schools to which students were admitted. In fact, our analysis suggests Proposition 209 had a modest ‘warming effect.’ We investigate and rule out the possibility that this warming effect was driven by changes in the selection of students who applied to the UC, changes in financial aid or changes in minorities’ college opportunities outside the UC system. Instead, we present evidence consistent with the idea that Proposition 209 increased the signaling value of attending UC schools for minorities.”


“The Effects of Affirmative Action Bans on College Enrollment, Educational Attainment and the Demographic Composition of Universities”
Hinrichs, Peter. Review of Economics and Statistics, August 2012, Vol. 94, No. 3. doi:10.1162/REST_a_00170.

Abstract: “I estimate the effects of affirmative action bans on college enrollment, educational attainment, and college demographic composition by exploiting time and state variation in bans. I find that bans have no effect on the typical student and the typical college, but they decrease underrepresented minority enrollment and increase white enrollment at selective colleges. In addition, I use the case study methods of Abadie and Gardeazabal (2003) and Abadie, Diamond, and Hainmueller (2010) and find that the affirmative action ban in California shifted underrepresented minority students from more selective campuses to less selective ones at the University of California.”


“A Comparative Analysis of Affirmative Action in the United Kingdom and United States”
Archibong, Uduak; Sharps, Phyllis W. Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Cultures, July 2011, Vol. 2, No. 2., 17-38. doi: 10.1002/jpoc.

Abstract: “Based on research conducted during a large-scale European Commission project on international perspectives on positive/affirmative action measures, the authors provide a comparative analysis of the legal context and perceptions of the impact of positive action in the United Kingdom and the United States. The study adopted participatory methods including consensus workshops, interviews, and legal analysis to obtain data from those individuals responsible for designing and implementing positive action measures. Findings are discussed, conclusions drawn, and wide-ranging recommendations are made at governmental and organizational levels. The authors conclude by suggesting possible implications for policy and argue for widespread awareness-raising campaigns of both the need for positive action measures for disadvantaged groups and the benefits of such measures for wider society. They also recommend the adoption of a more coherent and collaborative approach to the utilization and evaluation of the effectiveness of positive or affirmative action.”


“When White People Report Racial Discrimination: The Role of Region, Religion and Politics”
Mayrl, Damon; Saperstein, Aliya. Social Science Research, December 2012. doi: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.12.007.

Abstract: “Scholarly interest in the correlates and consequences of perceived discrimination has grown exponentially in recent years, yet, despite increased legal and media attention to claims of ‘anti-white bias,’ empirical studies predicting reports of racial discrimination by white Americans remain limited. Using data from the 2006 Portraits of American Life Study, we find that evangelical Protestantism increases the odds that whites will report experiencing racial discrimination, even after controlling for racial context and an array of social and psychological characteristics. However, this effect is limited to the South. Outside the South, political affiliation trumps religion, yielding distinct regional profiles of discrimination reporters. These findings suggest that institutions may function as regional ‘‘carriers’’ for whites inclined to report racial discrimination.


“Race and Affirming Opportunity in the Barack Obama Era”
Wilson, William Julius. Du Bois Review, 2012, 9:1, 5-16. doi: 10.10170S1742058X12000240.

Abstract:“I first discuss the Obama administration’s efforts to promote racial diversity on college campuses in the face of recent court challenges to affirmative action. I then analyze opposition in this country to ‘racial preferences’ as a way to overcome inequality. I follow that with a discussion of why class-based affirmative action, as a response to cries from conservatives to abolish ‘racial preferences,’ would not be an adequate substitute for race-based affirmative action. Instead of class-based affirmative action, I present an argument for opportunity enhancing affirmative action programs that rely on flexible, merit-based criteria of evaluation as opposed to numerical guidelines or quotas. Using the term ‘affirmative opportunity’ to describe such programs, I illustrate their application with three cases: the University of California, Irvine’s revised affirmative action admissions procedure; the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action program, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003; and the hiring and promotion of faculty of color at colleges and universities as seen in how I myself benefited from a type of affirmative action based on flexible merit-based criteria at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s. I conclude by relating affirmative opportunity programs for people of color to the important principle of ‘equality of life chances.'”


“Affirmative Meritocracy”
Walton, Gregory M.; Spencer, Steven J.; Erman, Sam. Social Issues and Policy Review.

Abstract: “We argue that in important circumstances meritocracy can be realized only through a specific form of affirmative action we call affirmative meritocracy. These circumstances arise because common measures of academic performance systematically underestimate the intellectual ability and potential of members of negatively stereotyped groups (e.g., non-Asian ethnic minorities, women in quantitative fields). This bias results not from the content of performance measures but from common contexts in which performance measures are assessed — from psychological threats like stereotype threat that are pervasive in academic settings, and which undermine the performance of people from negatively stereotyped groups. To overcome this bias, school and work settings should be changed to reduce stereotype threat. In such environments, admitting or hiring more members of devalued groups would promote meritocracy, diversity, and organizational performance. Evidence for this bias, its causes, magnitude, remedies, and implications for social policy and for law are discussed.”


“The Marley Hypothesis: Denial of Racism Reflects Ignorance of History”
Adams, Glenn; Nelson, Jessica C.; Salter, Phia S. Psychological Science, December 2012. doi: 10.1177/0956797612451466.

Abstract: “This study used a signal detection paradigm to explore the Marley hypothesis — that group differences in perception of racism reflect dominant-group denial of and ignorance about the extent of past racism. White American students from a midwestern university and black American students from two historically black universities completed surveys about their historical knowledge and perception of racism. Relative to black participants, White participants perceived less racism in both isolated incidents and systemic manifestations of racism. They also performed worse on a measure of historical knowledge (i.e., they did not discriminate historical fact from fiction), and this group difference in historical knowledge mediated the differences in perception of racism. Racial identity relevance moderated group differences in perception of systemic manifestations of racism (but not isolated incidents), such that group differences were stronger among participants who scored higher on a measure of racial identity relevance. The results help illuminate the importance of epistemologies of ignorance: cultural-psychological tools that afford denial of and inaction about injustice.”


“Racial Mismatch in the Classroom: Beyond Black-White Differences”McGrady, Patrick B.; Reynolds, John R. Sociology of Education, January 2013, Vol. 86, No. 1, 3-17. doi: 10.1177/0038040712444857.

Abstract: “Previous research demonstrates that students taught by teachers of the same race and ethnicity receive more positive behavioral evaluations than students taught by teachers of a different race/ethnicity. Many researchers view these findings as evidence that teachers, mainly white teachers, are racially biased due to preferences stemming from racial stereotypes that depict some groups as more academically oriented than others. Most of this research has been based on comparisons of only black and white students and teachers and does not directly test if other nonwhite students fare better when taught by nonwhite teachers. Analyses of Asian, black, Hispanic and white 10th graders in the 2002 Education Longitudinal Study confirm that the effects of mismatch often depend on the racial/ethnic statuses of both the teacher and the student, controlling for a variety of school and student characteristics. Among students with white teachers, Asian students are usually viewed more positively than white students, while black students are perceived more negatively. White teachers’ perceptions of Hispanic students do not typically differ from those of white students. Post-estimation comparisons of slopes indicate that Asian students benefit (perceptionwise) from having white teachers, but they reveal surprisingly few instances when black students would benefit (again, perceptionwise) from having more nonwhite teachers.”


“Beliefs About Affirmative Action: A Test of the Group Self-Interest and Racism Beliefs Models”
Oh, Euna; Choi, Chun-Chung; Neville, Helen A.; Anderson, Carolyn J.; Landrum-Brown, Joycelyn. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 2010, Vol. 3, No. 3, 163-176. doi: 10.1037/a0019799.

Abstract: “Two models of affirmative action attitudes (i.e., group self-interest and racism beliefs) were examined among a sample of racially diverse college students. Open-ended questions were included to provide students an opportunity to elaborate on their beliefs about affirmative action and beliefs about the existence of racial discrimination. Findings from logistic regression analysis on a subsample (n = 376) provide support for both models; race (a proxy for group self-interest) and racism beliefs (as measured by the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale [CoBRAS] and an open-ended question) helped predict endorsement of affirmative action in theoretically expected ways. Asian, Latino and black students were more likely to view affirmative action as helpful compared to their white counterparts, and limited awareness of institutional racism (i.e., higher CoBRAS scores) was associated with antiaffirmative action arguments. Follow-up analysis, however, provided support for the superiority of the racism beliefs model as measured by the CoBRAS in predicting affirmative action beliefs over the group-interest model. Limitations and implications for future research are discussed.”


“What Lies Beneath Seemingly Positive Campus Climate Results: Institutional Sexism, Racism and Male Hostility Toward Equity Initiatives and Liberal Bias”
Vaccaro, Annemarie. Equity & Excellence in Education, 2010, Vol. 43, No. 2, 202-215. doi: 10.1080/10665680903520231.

Introduction: “In an effort to make higher education institutions more welcoming spaces, many campuses engage in climate assessment. Campus climate study results can provide valuable insight into the state of a university and offer direction for climate improvements. This article offers a feminist analysis of climate data that emerged from the open-ended comment section on a campus climate survey. By using a critical feminist lens, the researcher uncovered ‘what lies beneath’ seemingly positive quantitative results. Qualitative results revealed male hostility toward diversity initiatives, resentment toward liberal bias, symbolic racism, and institutional sexism.”


Tags: research roundup, race-based admissions, racial preference, racial bias

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