What Israel Tells Us About Affirmative Action and Race

Sigal Alon, New York Times, December 16, 2015

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could decide the future of affirmative action in American higher education. When the court first heard the case, in 2013, the justices ruled that universities may take race and ethnicity into account in admissions only if race-neutral solutions have proved to be unworkable. Many legal scholars predict that this session’s decision is likely to pressure schools to find race-neutral ways of achieving student diversity.

We often hear the argument that class-based affirmative action, which would give socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants an edge in admissions, would also achieve racial diversity on campus. But how do we know? {snip}

There is a country with a race-neutral, class-based affirmative action policy that is large enough to study: Israel. The evidence there suggests that, far from being complementary, broad diversity and race-neutrality are conflicting goals.

In the mid-2000s, four of Israel’s most selective universities adopted an admissions policy that favored underprivileged applicants. The program is completely race-neutral and need-blind: Applicants are not evaluated on their ethnicity or their particular financial status. Instead, the emphasis is on structural determinants of disadvantage, such as applicants’ neighborhoods or the socioeconomic status of their high school (some individual hardships are also considered). {snip}

The Israeli model of affirmative action does achieve widespread diversity because it considers several aspects of disadvantage. In addition to increasing geographic diversity, the program increases the number of students who are new immigrants and who come from poorer families and poorer neighborhoods.

But it achieved these goals at the price of ethnic diversity. Only half of all those students admitted under the program are ethnic minorities, that is, Jews of Asian or African origin and Arabs, the groups at the bottom of Israel’s social stratification system. If a race-based affirmative action policy had been implemented instead of this policy, the level of ethnic diversity would have been twice as high. {snip}

With these results in mind, I assessed how the diversity dividends of American race-conscious admissions programs measured up, using data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, which follows students for six years, starting in their freshman year. The results demonstrate that class-based programs could enlarge the socioeconomic and geographic diversity at the 115 institutions I examined. Yet, as in Israel, the student bodies of elite American colleges would be substantially less racially and ethnically diverse than they are now. Under socioeconomic affirmative action, the share of minority students will decline by nearly a third. The number of African-American students could decline by up to 50 percent, and Hispanics by about 25 percent. At the same time, the share of whites and Asians will rise.

The findings from my comparative study are conclusive: There is no silver bullet for generating broad diversity at elite institutions. On one hand, race-neutral models of preferential treatment cannot match the level of racial and ethnic diversity that race-based affirmative action can achieve. On the other hand, race-based affirmative action does not produce the same level of socioeconomic and geographic diversity at elite campuses.

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