Research War on Affirmative Action

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, September 24, 2012

With the U.S. Supreme Court about to hear arguments in a case that could decide the fate of affirmative action in admissions, a research war has broken out. {snip}

Several studies presented Friday at the Brookings Institution suggested that eliminating the consideration of race would not have as dramatic an effect on minority students as some believe, and that the beneficiaries of affirmative action may in fact achieve less academic success than they would otherwise. {snip}

Yield Rates After a Ban

One of the studies explored the impact on the yield rate—the proportion of admitted students who enroll—of black, Latino and Native American students to the University of California after the state barred the consideration of race in admissions. Minority enrollments fell after voters adopted the ban, in part because greater proportions of white and Asian applicants, on average, have the academic and other credentials required for admission.

But the paper focused on a subset of minority students: those who gained admission after the ban on affirmative action. Many observers at the time predicted that these students would be less likely to enroll, as they would perceive the system to be hostile, and news articles quoted minority students to this effect.

But a paper by Kate Antonovics, an economist at the University of California at San Diego, and Richard Sander, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, found that the ban on affirmative action didn’t produce “chilling effects,” but actually produced “warming effects” on the likelihood of minority students’ accepting offers of admission.

The paper examined the yield rates by students in the three years after Proposition 209 (the ban) took effect. Across the system, the yield rate increased by about 10 percent. {snip}

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The fear Antonovics expressed is that minority students might not be enrolling at highly competitive institutions at which they would be a good academic match. Another kind of “mismatch” has also been the focus of much research on affirmative action in recent years—and that idea (hotly debated) is that minority students who are admitted to better institutions because of affirmative action may end up with lower academic achievement as a result. (Sander, who helped organize the Brookings program, has been a leading proponent of the idea.)

On Friday, Doug Williams, chair of economics at the University of the South, presented a paper arguing that law schools provide solid evidence for the existence of mismatch. He said that because of the requirement that lawyers pass a bar exam, there is an independent measure of successful learning in law school. {snip}

There has long been a gap between black and white law graduates on bar passage rates, he noted. Currently, about 97 percent of white law school graduates pass the bar, with 92 percent passing on the first try. For black law graduates, the figures are 78 and 61 percent, respectively. But Williams said that these gaps are partly explained by the differing academic credentials of black and white law students, and so by themselves don’t back mismatch theory.

But in comparing minority law graduates of comparable academic preparation who enroll in more or less competitive law schools, Williams said that those (from among those with comparable academic credentials) who enroll in the bottom two tiers of law schools pass the bar at a rate that is 14 percentage points higher than that of those who enroll at the top law schools. {snip}

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The debate will likely continue Thursday when a coalition of social science groups—the American Educational Research Association, the American Sociological Association, the American Statistical Association, the Association for the Study of Higher Education, the Law and Society Association and the Linguistic Society of America—hold a briefing on research those organizations cited in their brief to the Supreme Court encouraging the justices to uphold the legality of the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions.

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