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The Net Effect of Affirmative Action in College Admissions

- January 14, 2008

Affirmative action — defined in various ways by various people — ranks alongside abortion as one of the true “wedge” issues of American politics. Among the charges that critics have leveled against affirmative action in higher education admissions are (1) it takes minority students from schools where they have received poor academic preparation and places them in situations where they are unlikely to succeed; and (2) that it produces extra pressure and stress on minorities that undermine their academic performance. Thus, critics charge, affirmative action is not only objectionable in theory, but self-defeating in practice.

In a recent article in Social Science Research (abstract here), Mary J. Fischer and Douglas Massey, analyzing data from a large national survey of college freshmen, find that black and Hispanic students who entered college with SAT scores below the mean for the entering class at their school actually got somewhat better first-semester grades than their peers, though that positive effect didn’t persist into their sophomore year. At the same time, those at schools that made greater use of affirmative action did perform more poorly (as gauged by GPAs) during their sophomore year — a result Fischer and Massey interpret, reasonably enough, as consistent with the second charge against affirmative action, given that this effect didn’t show up during these students’ first semester at the school.

Students’ performance during their freshman and sophomore years, however, is only part of Fischer and Massey’s story. The chances of leaving school prior to graduation, they report, were considerably lower for minority students admitted despite low SAT scores; that is, these students were more, not less, likely to stay in school. Here again, though, being enrolled at a school that made greater use of affirmative action worked in the opposite direction: minority students enrolled in those schools were more likely to drop out, though this effect was not especially strong.

In sum, these analyses provide no support for the first charge but some support for the second one. As Fischer and Massey put it:

bq. …affirmative action has countervailing effects at the individual and institutional levels. While institutional use of affirmative action appears to create a negative campus climate for minority achievement, among individual beneficiaries it seems to produce higher grades and lower school-leaving probabilities.

Having said that, the question becomes which of these two countervailing effects is stronger. Fischer and Massey’s follow-up analyses indicate that the two effects on grade achievement cancel one another out, producing “essentially a wash.” Insofar as stayi ng in school is concerned, though, the individual effect trumps the institutional one, producing a net positive outcome.

The overall conclusion: “Despite a complex mix of offsetting effects, affirmative action as currently practiced carries a clear benefit for minority students …”

There’s plenty of grist for the mill here on a topic that always evokes strong reactions.

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