The Real Damage from Racial Preferences in College Admissions
Racial preferences -- i.e., discrimination -- are usually touted as a way to help minorities. Often overlooked, however, is the harm they cause these same individuals.
Any day now, we will be getting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas on the constitutionality of the racial preferences practiced by the University of Texas in Austin in its admissions process. But there is another issue, quite apart from the constitutional issue over the unfair racial discrimination suffered by white and Asian students when Hispanic and black students with lower test scores and lower grades are accepted in their stead. It’s the fact that the resulting mismatch between such black and Hispanic students and the other students in their colleges causes lasting damage to their professional lives and careers.
Three members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Todd Gaziano, Gail Heriot, and Peter Kirsanow, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the Fisher case. Their Commission found “extensive empirical research” showing that “students who attend schools where their entering academic credentials put them in the bottom of the class are less likely to follow through” pursuing a major in science or engineering than other students with similar credentials “who attend schools where their credentials put them in the middle or top of the class.”
The Commission found the same thing to be true in law schools: “students, regardless of race, are less likely to graduate from law school and pass the bar if they are the beneficiaries of preferential treatment in admissions than if they attend a law school at which their entering academic credentials” are the same as other average students.
As the commissioners argued very persuasively in their brief, the actual evidence from colleges and universities nationwide shows that while race-based admissions policies have been justified by college administrators as a way to help minorities in higher education and their eventual entry into high-prestige, high-paying careers, they seem to have the opposite effect.
As the commissioners noted, “we now have fewer minority science and engineering graduates that we would have under race neutral admissions policies.” We also have “fewer minority college professors … and fewer minority lawyers,” and we have made it “more difficult for talented minority students to enter high-prestige careers.”
The reasons should be obvious to anyone who has gone through college. Students know how tough it is to keep up in classes where the other students are ahead of you in understanding and comprehending the subject. When the highest academic schools, the top-tier colleges, relax their admissions criteria to admit more minority students, then the second-tier schools that are one rung down on the academic ladder “must do likewise if they are to have minority students, too.” The same problem is passed on to third-tier schools.
The result is that certain minorities – blacks and Hispanics – “are overwhelmingly at the bottom of the distribution of entering academic credentials at most selective schools.” This results in minority students having qualifications well below that of the average student at their colleges.
While some very bright students may overcome that deficit and perform better than one might have expected given their credentials entering college, most, unfortunately, will earn grades that match their lower qualifications. This makes it much more difficult for such students to succeed, discouraging them and leading to higher dropout rates or transfers to less academically rigorous majors.
If colleges and universities stopped using racial preferences in admissions, then minority students would be accepted at schools where their credentials match those of other students. While a black or Hispanic student might be in the bottom of the class at a first-tier school where he was accepted with lower credentials than other students, he might be an honor student at a second-tier school where the average performance of students more clearly matches his own.
As the commissioners noted, the empirical research shows that students who attend schools where their entering academic credentials put them in the middle or the top of the class are more likely to persevere and ultimately succeed than “otherwise identical students” attending a more elite school where their credentials put them in the bottom of the class.
Minority attrition in science is a major problem, and the research shows that this is due to mismatched students: “student with credentials more than one standard deviation below their science peers at college are about half as likely to end up with science bachelor degrees, compared with similar students attending schools where their credentials are much closer to, or above, the mean credentials of their peers.” The story is similar in other majors.
In 2003, when the Grutter v. Bollinger decision was decided and the Supreme Court approved racial discrimination in admissions under certain narrow circumstances, evidence about the harmful effects of racial preferences wasn’t available. But it is now and as the commissioners pointed out, there is “no empirical research that challenges these findings.” In fact, “the evidence is quite devastating” that the use of race in college admissions causes lasting damage to minority students.
Racial discrimination in college admission is morally wrong and a violation of basic and fundamental principles of equal protection, whether it is in favor of certain students or against other students. The actual harm it causes to its supposed beneficiaries is yet another reason for the Supreme Court to stop such discrimination once and for all.
As Justice Stanley Mosk of the California Supreme Court warned in 1976 in Bakke v. Regents of the University of California (the California court’s judgment overturning the UC Davis admissions policy was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court but on narrower grounds), upholding such racial admissions policies “call for the sacrifice of principles for the sake of dubious expediency and would represent a retreat in the struggle to assure that each man and woman shall be judged on the basis of individual merit alone .”
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