Skin Deep: The Pitfalls of Racial Preferences

Collegiate affirmative action policies, first institutionalized as a part of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, were designed to provide minorities with equal opportunities to college admissions. These policies, based predominantly on recruitment and outreach programs targeting historically underrepresented groups, strove to increase social mobility, create diverse student bodies, and give promising students who were discriminated against an opportunity to achieve their full potential. These are all commendable and worthwhile goals, and colleges should work to achieve them. However, race-based affirmative action policies, as they are used in college admissions today, have failed on all of these fronts.

Though more favored among underrepresented minorities than among whites, racial preferences are unpopular across all races. A poll sponsored by the Washington Post and Kaiser asked, “In order to give minorities more opportunity, do you believe race or ethnicity should be a factor when deciding who is hired, promoted, or admitted to college, or that hiring, promotions, and college admissions should be based strictly on merit and qualifications other than race or ethnicity?” Only 3% of white respondents, 7% of Hispanic respondents, and 12% of black respondents supported racial preferences. For white students, this response is consistent with the idea that racial preferences serve as a tool of discrimination when it comes to admission decisions. For underrepresented minorities, the disapproval of race-based affirmative action may tie in with Peggy McIntosh’s article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, in which she explains that minorities are concerned that others will assume they only got a job (or admission to a selective college) because of their race.

Additionally, disapproval of race-based affirmative action could be due to the fact that racial preferences actually have a negative impact on minorities’ long-term success. While there are certainly plenty of black and Hispanic students who were academically successful in high school and, having received little to no admissions preference, went on to remain at the top of their class in college, this is not always the case. One of the biggest problems racial preferences introduce is the mismatch effect, wherein students are given such significant admissions preferences that they are academically under-qualified for the school they attend, starting at or near the bottom of their class from the get-go. Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford describe in their 2009 book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal that, in their study of a large number of selective colleges (most of which were private), black applicants received “an admissions bonus…equivalent to 310 SAT points” over their white peers, and an even larger boost relative to their Asian peers.

The mismatch effect has had dire consequences. In their 2009 book, Mismatch, Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr. state that “Mismatch largely explains why, even though blacks are more likely to enter college than are whites with similar backgrounds, they will usually get much lower grades, rank toward the bottom of the class, and far more often drop out; why there are so few blacks and Hispanics with science and engineering degrees or with doctorates in any field; and why black law graduates fail bar exams at four times the white rate.”

Similarly, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa write in their 2010 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, that the typical black student’s GPA at top-tier colleges ranks between the 15th and 20th percentile of white students’ GPAs. However, when controlling for all factors except for the size of admissions preferences the students received (including, for example, white students who received preferences as legacies or Asian students who received preferences as athletes), the racial disparity disappears. In other words, the reason minority students tend to get lower grades in college is not because of their race or because of racism against them, but rather because of significant preferences they received in gaining admission.

Sander and Taylor also note, “sharp increases in socioeconomic diversity can be achieved with preferences much smaller than those typically used to pursue racial diversity. We also know that mismatch is fundamentally related not to whether preferences are tied to race, SES [socioeconomic status], or athletic ability, but rather to the size of the preference.” If colleges make the switch from race- based to income-based affirmative action, the harms of the mismatch effect will be greatly reduced, and disadvantaged students will have real opportunities to succeed.

Education is the key ingredient to social mobility, but attending college is an economic decision based on cost-benefit analysis. For low-income students, the cost associated with college enrollment—which includes the expenses for tuition, room and board, textbooks, and so on, as well as four years’ worth of foregone income—is often enough to encourage them to enter the workforce instead of going to school. As a result, low-income students are hugely underrepresented in colleges, and thus have a harder time entering high-paying professions. Prestigious colleges provide students with a brand-name education and access to an alumni network that increases students’ job prospects and earning potential substantially enough to make college an appealing choice. As such, it is imperative that qualified low-income students be given the opportunity to attend more selective colleges.

Racial diversity need not suffer by switching to the income-based model either: African-American and Hispanic students are disproportionately socioeconomically disadvantaged, and thus would, in turn, disproportionately benefit from income- based affirmative action. The key distinction to make is that the reason for minorities’ lower incomes is not exclusively because of their race: though racist policies of the past contributed to bringing minorities into poverty in the first place, this trend has only been able to continue due to the lack of social mobility that affects low-income Americans of all races. Income-based affirmatives action would address these concerns by targeting all students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Further, income-based affirmative action programs would prove more successful than racial preferences at fostering other important types of diversity, such as geographic diversity and political diversity. Under the current admissions system, students from rural areas (and thus, students from most Southeastern, Western, and Midwestern states) are hugely underrepresented: rural Americans comprise 20% of the U.S. population, a far higher proportion than can be found at most selective colleges. Providing preferences for high-achieving low-income students from these backgrounds will help to introduce a broader range of student perspectives and experiences to colleges, thereby enriching the academic environment for all.

When affirmative action was first introduced, its main recipients were African- American students who were the first in their families to go to college. Today, according to Sander and Taylor, “a majority of African Americans receiving preferences at elite colleges and law schools themselves come from affluent families, usually with two college-educated parents.” When controlling for all other factors, black students today are over 30% more likely to start college than their white counterparts, and yet black students are less likely to graduate from college than white students with similar academic attributes. In contrast, low-income students (defined as students at the bottom 20% of the socioeconomic distribution) of all races are 70% less likely to start college than wealthier students (top 20% of the socioeconomic distribution) with similar academic credentials.

This issue is particularly troubling when considered in broader context: racial preferences have gradually come to benefit affluent students at higher and higher rates, while income inequality is increasing and, therefore, putting low-income students of all races at an increasingly great disadvantage. If our goal is to help the disadvantaged to succeed and increase diversity at colleges nationwide, then colleges nationwide must make the switch from a system of racial preferences that has proven futile to a more effective income-based affirmative action policy.

Richard Sander will be speaking at the Ath on Monday

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