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Who Benefits (and Who Doesn’t) from Bans on Affirmative Action in College Admissions?

- February 1, 2008

What happens when colleges are barred from using race or ethnicity in their admissions decisions? Opposition to the use of racial or ethnic criteria in college admissions has been spearheaded by whites. However, a new study of freshman enrollment patterns, 1990-2005, at the University of Florida, the University of Texas, and UC-Berkeley, UC-San Diego, and UCLA suggests that white applicants did not benefit from the ban on considering race or ethnicity in admissions decisions. Indeed, the study suggests that whites’ share of the student bodies at those schools actually declined somewhat. The study’s authors (former UCLA chancellor Charles E. Young, former Florida provost David R. Colburn, and former Florida director of institutional research Victor M. Yellen) attribute some of that decline to the increasing diversity of the states in which these schools are located. Even so, they pointedly conclude that the decline in white enrollments “can hardly be satisfying” to “those who campaigned for the elimination of affirmative action in the belief that it would advantage white students.”

The apparent impact on the enrollment of black students varied greatly from school to school. At the three UC campuses, the impact was “devastating,” but in Florida the decline was limited and in Texas black enrollments rebounded after an initial drop. The study’s authors attribute this differential impact across states to differences in the aggressiveness with which state and university officials worked to mitigate the effects of the affirmative action bans.

The primary beneficiaries of the bans, the study concludes, were Asian Americans, not whites. The previously existing admissions criteria had in effect discriminated against Asian Americans, whose share of the entering classes at these schools shot up after the bans were imposed.

The current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education contains a lengthy report on the study, along with considerable background material, but direct online access is restricted to Chronicle subscribers. Here is a copy of the Chronicle story that was posted elsewhere on the internet. The study itself will be published within the next few days in Interactions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies.

[Hat tip to Carol Sigelman]

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