Do race preferences help students?

As the Supreme Court revisits the use of race in college admissions, critics of affirmative action are hopeful the justices are poised to roll back the practice. A new report released Oct. 3 offers a big reason for their optimism: evidence the nine states where leading public universities don't use affirmative action have succeeded in bringing diversity to their campuses through race-neutral means.
(Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)

Affirmative action, long one of America’s most divisive social issues, is about to grab headlines again. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a challenge to a state university’s use of race in selecting students.

In many ways, the legal issues in Fisher vs. University of Texas are the same as those that came before the court in 1978 and 2003. But the broader affirmative action debate has changed since those cases were heard, and in ways that could point toward compromises that might win broad public support.

Since the late 1960s, the racial preference discussion has been dominated by fairness questions. Proponents saw preferences as a necessary way of ensuring that racial minorities enjoy equal opportunity in the real world and not just paper promises of fair treatment. Opponents saw preferences as reverse discrimination, perpetuating racist habits under a new guise. But in recent years, scholars have started to do careful empirical research on whether preferences actually help their intended recipients. When the dispute shifts from “is it fair?” to “does it work?” — thus changing the focus from ideology to evidence — open-minded people can make progress toward consensus.


Much of this new research is on the idea of “mismatch” — on what happens after a student is admitted to a school for which he or she is only marginally qualified. (It is common for colleges to accept black applicants with SAT scores several hundred points below those generally required for Asian or white applicants.) In general, however, studies have found that students tend to learn less if they are surrounded by peers with much stronger academic preparation.

Some 40% of black students entering college, for example, say they expect to major in science or engineering. But when they get to schools where most of the other students are better prepared — with much higher SAT scores and more rigorous high school course work — the chance of failure is high. Although some racial preference recipients rise to the challenge and perform better than ever, research finds that most tend to be overwhelmed and move to easier majors.

These are serious concerns. A raft of recent studies has found that students often fail to thrive if they are admitted to colleges for which they’re far less prepared than their fellow students, and this holds true whether the preferences under which they were admitted were based on race (as are most very large preferences) or any other factor. Students admitted to schools under such programs are 30% to 40% less likely to get science degrees; they are twice as likely to fail the bar exam after law school; and they are likely to have less social interaction across racial lines.

These numbers are not comparing preference recipients with their better-qualified peers; they are comparing preference students with otherwise similar students who go to very good but less elite schools where they are better matched.

The mismatch hypothesis is controversial. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has issued two meticulously researched and reasoned reports expressing great concern about mismatch problems, but university leaders utterly ignored the reports, and they reject the idea of mismatch out of hand. Race is such a sensitive subject on most campuses, and diversity via racial preferences is viewed as so sacred, that campus presidents will often embrace even the flimsiest rebuttals of peer-reviewed, carefully replicated mismatch research.

In our view, the evidence is overwhelming that mismatches often harm those they are trying to help. Many skeptics are simply resisting serious scrutiny of current practices on political or emotional grounds. Others legitimately point out that there are important questions that need closer study, such as whether academic support can offset the effect of preferences, or whether the long-term advantages of an elite degree can offset mismatch troubles during college.


But even if the current evidence is viewed as inconclusive, there’s an easy step the Supreme Court should consider: mandating transparency in university admissions systems that have long been cloaked in secrecy. Current court doctrine requires that preferences not be harmful to any racial group. Nearly all experts agree that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is likely to write the decisive opinion in Fisher, and that he will be interested in putting more teeth into the court’s high-sounding but so far unenforced principles curbing abuse of preferences. A great way to do this would be a simple consumer protection measure, requiring that when a college or university uses a racial preference, it provide applicants and admitted students with information about the outcomes of students whose qualifications are similar to theirs.

In many realms, it is taken for granted that consumers need good information: Home mortgages, cars and even cereal boxes come with extensive disclosures. It is hard to think of a major investment — especially one of such crucial lifelong importance — in which the consumers (students and their families) have so little information available about what exactly they are getting. Universities are ranked by outlets like U.S. News & World Report according to their prestige. But there is little information available that measures how schools actually serve their students.

In particular, those admitted with far lower scores or grades than the majority of students at the school need to know whether — and by how much — attending a more elite school is likely to hurt their grades and class rank. They should be able to gauge their chances of sticking with a tough major, graduating and passing licensing exams. Under current practices, there is simply no way to tell how students’ qualifications on entry affect their academic success, and so students are left to rely on those alluring national rankings.

Requiring disclosures and transparency would empower students to make intelligent choices while still permitting colleges — at least for now — to continue offering large racial preferences. If the data tend to confirm that mismatched students fare poorly, then at least some students will shun preferences that are likely to land them out of their depth, and universities will probably work harder than they do now to provide effective academic support to struggling students. It would serve both skeptics and defenders of preferences to have the information needed to determine when, and how well, preference policies actually work.

Richard Sander, a law professor at UCLA, and Stuart Taylor Jr., a journalist and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, are the authors of the book “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It.”