Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Survey of the Research Literature Related to Affirmative Action

Researchers are concerned with the image a school sends to minority students who are admitted to universities where race-based admissions were banned—and whether those academically qualified students hesitate to attend a school that they may interpret as being less favorable to minorities. In policy circles, “chilling effects” is used to describe that phenomenon. 

A 2012 study by researchers from UC San Diego and UCLA sought to answer that question, arguing, “The answer to this question [is] crucial, because even the most ardent opponent of racial preferences would presumably take pause if a ban would lead qualified minority applicants to eschew the affected schools.” To find out, the study’s researchers looked at California’s UC system and compared enrollment of admitted minority students two years before and after 1998—when a state referendum affirmed Proposition 209 and put an end to race-based admissions at the UCs. To their surprise the researchers found that after the ban there was an uptick in the number of admitted minorities attending the UC system. They concluded Proposition 209 portrayed the schools in a more favorable light to qualified minority students, since employers would not doubt how much race factored into their being admitted. The researchers note, however, the schools launched an outreach effort stressing minority students were welcomed.

Still, minority enrollment was negatively affected at the UC system following Proposition 209. Between 1995 and 1997, 52 percent of under-represented minorities who applied as freshmen to Berkeley were admitted; between 1998 and 2000, that number dropped to 25 percent. Adding to the complexity, while the more elite UC schools witnessed a reduction of minority enrollment as a share of the student body after the proposition, other universities within the system saw a rise.

Another study looked at whether underrepresented racial groups that start off college far behind their peers eventually catch up by the time of graduation. In “What Happens after Enrollment”, researchers Peter Arcidiacono, Esteban M. Aucejo and Ken Spenner find that among students at Duke University entering for the first time in 2001 and 2002, blacks—and to a lesser degree, Hispanics—started off their academic careers with GPAs well below whites and Asians. Over time, the gap was nearly closed.

They provide two caveats, though. Much of the convergence can be explained by course selection: more whites graduate with natural science degrees than blacks. The sciences tend to be graded harder than the humanities, to which many blacks gravitate, helping explain why the grade gap between the two demographics narrows over time, according to the study.  The researchers posit that affirmative action has had a negative effect on minority participation in the sciences. Because many students admitted through affirmative action are already under-prepared for college, the rigor of the sciences will drive many away even if they have a pronounced interest in earning a bachelor’s of science.   

Countering some of the above conclusions, a paper by Marc Luppino and Richard Sander notes that non-minority students enrolled at the University of California system were likely to switch out of science majors if the college’s science students were particularly competitive. Among minority students, however, the researchers spotted a zeal to remain within the STEM track, resulting in lower GPAs and graduating rates. Puppino and Sander take a stab at some of the reasons for this disparity, proposing that minority students are drawn to the prestige of a STEM degree despite the risks or that minority students are less likely to receive guidance on how to “maneuver the college landscape.”

Is there an alternative to case-based admissions? Richard D. Kahlenberg, a self-described liberal and progressive, authored a report for the Century Foundation that argues for affirmative action more focused on socio-economics, not race. The report chronicles the unpopularity of race-based admissions among voters; it notes that students of lesser means are expected to score 399 points below average on the SAT while blacks score on average just 56 points below the national average; and it considers the legal arguments in favor of dismantling race-based standards, citing recent court decisions that urged universities to consider other standards for admitting students. He proposes a new approach, one that takes into account the income and wealth of an applicant’s family, place of residence, number of parents, and other socio-economic factors. 

William Kidder, assistant Provost at the University of California—Riverside, compiled a survey of research on behalf of American Educational Research Association (which filed a brief in support of the University of Texas at Austin). In it, he cites studies that conclude blacks and Hispanics who are placed at highly selective universities are more likely to graduate college than would be the case had they attended less selective universities. One study compared black and Hispanic students with similar high school transcripts who attended universities of various selectivity, finding that students in the more selective schools had a more positive graduation rate.

Other studies summarized in Kidder’s survey considered the employment prospects of minority students who complete more selective schools. Such students had large returns compared to others in the labor market. Also, studies indicate racially mixed universities help expose students from more homogeneous environments to levels of diversity that will help them professionally.

The survey also adduces studies that push back against reports that speculate race-based admissions hinder STEM enrollment among minorities. The referenced scholarly work suggests all races suffer in the STEM fields but that universities often lack supportive environments to help encourage under-represented minorities navigate the STEM waterfront.