Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Scholars Emphasize Importance of Affirmative Action Programs

A group of university professors have released a statement through The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, arguing that the benefits of affirmative action are supported by sound research, despite the politically divisive nature of the debate over its usage.

Their goal is to both justify the usage of such diversity policies and help universities craft policies that are legally sound.

The statement makes a number of points, supported with cited studies.  It comes in the wake of the Fisher v. University of Texas U.S. Supreme Court decision, which sent the affirmative action case back to lower courts. Although it was not a decisive statement, researchers said the court did recognize that the goal of diversity in higher education is a worthy one.

“The Court also emphasized that use of race, if challenged, requires a clear judicial finding that the campus has shown that it could not find a workable and feasible non-racial strategy that would produce the desired level of diversity at tolerable administrative expense,” the statement says.

The professors first lay out the case for the benefits of diversity in a higher education setting, including reductions in prejudice and greater civic engagement. Diversity also can cutback on stereotyping, tokenism and other discrimination on campus.

The study notes that the risk for such discrimination has been highest in fields with few minorities, such as science, technology, engineering and math majors (STEM).

The researchers argue against any assertions that minority students admitted under affirmative action programs are stigmatized, and say the opposite is true. The argue against the idea that such minorities would do better academically at less elite schools. They say students who initially have low test scores may be motivated by the challenge of attending an elite university.

“The claim that minority students suffer academic harms when their admissions credentials do not “match” their institutions finds limited support in the scientific literature,” the statement says. “Research on undergraduates as well as on professional schools shows that minority students attain higher grades and have higher graduation rates when attending more selective institutions.”

The researchers argue that polices such as considering low income status rather than race and targeted recruitment of minorities are not as effective as affirmative action.

The signers of the statement include professors from Stanford University, University of Illinois, Vanderbilt University, University of Houston, and the University of Michigan.

While the statement strongly pushes affirmative action as a solution, other higher education institutions are pursuing other avenues of increasing diversity. Some universities believe that reaching out to minority students in middle and high school could increase diversity. A recent article in The New York Times described how the University of California-Irving spends more than $7 million annually on outreach. California schools have turned to such strategies since affirmative action was banned there.   “California’s public universities, and some of their counterparts around the country, have embedded themselves deeply in disadvantaged communities, working with schools, students and parents to identify promising teenagers and get more of them into college,” the article says. “It is not enough, university administrators say, to change the way they select students; they must also change the students themselves, and begin to do so long before the time arrives to fill out applications.”