Does Affirmative Action Help?

Uttering the phrase affirmative action conjures up a torrent of emotion in people from all walks of life. Putting the emotion aside, I’ve always been more interested in knowing exactly if affirmative action works. Does it help kids and teenagers realize educational goals that otherwise would not have been achievable?

Some say it does not. One of the most vocal opponents of the policy, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has often stated that the stigma around being an affirmative action beneficiary is often greater than the opportunity the policy may present. In a 2003 supreme court case on the issue, Grutter v. Bollinger, Thomas — in dissent — wrote:

Who can differentiate between those who belong and those who do not? The majority of blacks are admitted to the Law School because of discrimination, and because of this policy all are tarred as undeserving. This problem of stigma does not depend on determinacy as to whether those stigmatized are actually the “beneficiaries” of racial discrimination. When blacks take positions in the highest places of government, industry, or academia, it is an open question today whether their skin color played a part in their advancement. The question itself is the stigma—because either racial discrimination did play a role, in which case the person may be deemed “otherwise unqualified,” or it did not, in which case asking the question itself unfairly marks those blacks who would succeed without discrimination.

The stigma, I believe, is very real. Not only in the minds of students who do not directly participate in affirmitive action, but also in the conscious of the female and minority students who must persistently push back the pang of uncertainty as to whether or not their spot was ‘deserved’.

In the same dissent, Thomas goes further saying not only is there a stigma, but the policy itself is unproductive as it create a mismatch between the student and the school.

The Law School seeks only a facade—it is sufficient that the class looks right, even if it does not perform right.The Law School tantalizes unprepared students with the promise of a University of Michigan degree and all of the opportunities that it offers. These overmatched students take the bait, only to find that they cannot succeed in the cauldron of competition. And this mismatch crisis is not restricted to elite institutions. See T. Sowell, Race and Culture 176–177 (1994) (“Even if most minority students are able to meet the normal standards at the ‘average ’ range of colleges and universities, the systematic mismatching of minority students begun at the top can mean that such students are generally overmatched throughout all levels of higher education”).

This piece goes back to my original inquiry. Does affirmative action actually help individuals realize educational goals that otherwise would not have been achievable? Thomas says no. Research leans toward yes. Matthew Chingos, an Economist and fellow with the Brooking’s Institute has studied this exact question.

The mismatch idea is certainly plausible in theory. One would not expect a barely literate high-school dropout to be successful at a selective college; admitting that student to such an institution could cause them to end up deep in debt with no degree. But admissions officers at selective colleges obviously do not use affirmative action to admit just anyone, but rather candidates they think can succeed at their institution.

The mismatch hypothesis is thus an empirical question: have admissions offices systematically overstepped in their zeal to recruit a diverse student body? In other words, are they admitting students who would be better off if they had gone to college elsewhere, or not at all? There is very little high-quality evidence supporting the mismatch hypothesis, especially as it relates to undergraduate admissions—the subject of the current Supreme Court case [Fisher v Texas].

In fact, most of the research on the mismatch question points in the opposite direction. In our 2009 book, William Bowen, Michael McPherson, and I found that students were most likely to graduate by attending the most selective institution that would admit them. This finding held regardless of student characteristics—better or worse prepared, black or white, rich or poor. Most troubling was the fact that many well-prepared students “undermatch” by going to a school that is not demanding enough, and are less likely to graduate as a result. Other prior research has found that disadvantaged students benefit more from attending a higher quality college than their more advantaged peers.

This research is far from definitive. I encourage readers to take in Chingos argument in its entirety, and I’m under no illusion that it will change the public perception of affirmative action. There is too much of an emotional and personal drag to expect individuals to analyze the issue without a particular shade. But having this information is important and challenging ourselves to explore why such a policy has been necessary is a critical step towards moving forward.

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