College Guide


July 19, 2012 6:31 PM The World Without Affirmative Action

By Daniel Luzer

In the next few months the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on a significant affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, in which two white women are suing Texas’s flagship university, arguing that their rejection for admission constitutes a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

If the court decides in Fisher’s favor, affirmative action will likely be over at public colleges in the United States, which about 80 percent of American undergraduates attend.

With this case in mind, a researcher at the University of Michigan, Liliana Garces, attempted to figure out what might happen in American graduate schools. Garces looked at the racial breakdown at public colleges in Texas, California, Washington, and Florida, which already have affirmative action bans in place. According to her paper, published by The Civil Rights Project:

Bans on affirmative action led to an estimated drop of 1.2 percentage points in the proportion of students of color enrolled across all graduate degree programs. Before any of the bans were implemented in each state, the average percentage of enrolled graduate students who were students of color was about 9.9 percent. The estimated 1.2 percentage point drop thus represents a decline to about 8.7 percent.

This is a significant, though not exactly astounding, difference.

This is hardly the difference between a wonderful world of great opportunities for ethnic minorities and the abyss, at least in part because it doesn’t look like affirmative action is really greatly increasing the presence of minorities on graduate school campuses anyway.

About 22 percent of Americans are ethnic minorities currently, more than double the figure for ethnic minorities in public graduate schools when they had affirmative action in place.

Garces emphasizes that the drop was greater in engineering and the social sciences than in fields like humanities and education.

There are, of course, other ways than racial preferences to facilitate social mobility of the American underprivileged through academic admissions. One way might be to give preferences based on low socioeconomic class.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Roger Clegg, Ctr for Equal Opportunity on July 19, 2012 8:47 PM:

    Here's my critique of the Civil Rights Project's study:

    (1) In the runup to Fisher, we will likely see a lot of "studies" like this, by advocates and designed to shore up the crumbling case for racial preferences.

    (2) The irony of this particular study is that the weight of research shows more and more clearly that racial and ethnic preferences have HURT African Americans and Latinos and Native Americans in the STEM area. Because of the systematic mismatching of students and schools, those groups admitted with academic qualifications lower than other groups have tended to drop out or switch majors into easier disciplines. This was the conclusion of the recent study at Duke; this is also argued comprehensively in the amicus briefs filed recently with the Supreme Court by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, and by Gail Heriot, Todd Gaziano, and Peter Kirsanow.

    (3) In this regard, the study here is just about enrollment -- not about graduation. That is a huge hole. And, of course, there may be other confounding factors -- like the increase of Asian American and Middle Eastern students, for example, or the economy. Note also that the declines don't seem to me to be that large, and of course some decline is entirely to be expected when racial preferences are eliminated � this is indeed just evidence that some students were being admitted because of skin color.

    (4) There is no showing here that there has been a decline in overall enrollment at these schools -- just that some (less qualified) students have been replaced by some other (more qualified) students.

    (5) It cannot be assumed that the students who are turned down here are not admitted somewhere else -- and, if they are admitted to schools where their qualifications are on par with the other students', they will likely do better.

    (6) Even if fewer students of one group are admitted to schools overall as a result of the end of racial preferences, this is not as bad a result as the continued, systematic discrimination on the basis of skin color and national origin. Would we accept an argument that discrimination against Jews had to be continued because there were more and more Gentiles who were losing out to them in med schools admissions? This is no different.

    (7) Finally, the argument that we need racial preferences in order to increase the number of certain groups in the STEM area is not one that is being argued by the University of Texas, nor is it one that the Supreme Court has ever recognized. To the contrary, this sounds a lot like the "discrimination for its own sake" that Justice Powell rejected in
    Bakke. It is, moreover, a silly argument: If we are facing a shortage of "scientific manpower," there is no reason why we should use race in filling that gap: We should welcome any student of any color who might not otherwise have considered this field.