Affirmative Action: Costly and Counterproductive
In the debates and court cases on using affirmative action to increase minority enrollment at highly selective colleges, it has been a self-evident article of faith among supporters of affirmative action that the educational experience is deficient and inferior without sufficient minority representation, and can therefore be enhanced and improved by artificially increasing minority enrollment, usually by lowering admissions standards for targeted groups. These proponents usually suggest that all students benefit from affirmative action, including both the majority-race students at selective, elite colleges, and minority student groups at those colleges.
That position is now being challenged with contrary statistical evidence in a forthcoming paper in Economic Inquiry "Does the River Spill Over? Estimating the Economic Returns to Attending a Racially Diverse College," by two Duke University professors Peter Arcidiacono and Jacob Vigdor. Here are some key excerpts:
Introduction: "For more than a quarter century, the belief that diversity contributes to the quality of undergraduate and graduate education has motivated court opinions and college policies regarding racial preferences in admissions. Surprisingly the social sciences have provided very little evidence to support or refute this claim. Such evidence would clearly be of great interest both to policy makers and to scholars conducting more general studies of the impacts of affirmative action on higher education."
Summary: "Do white and Asian students at elite schools benefit from the presence of Under- Represented Minority students on campus or in the college classroom? While not all the evidence in this article suggests that interracial exposure is uniformly negative, it strongly suggests that the predominant policy tool designed to increase the representation of minority groups, affirmative action, has a negative net impact on students not directly targeted by the program.
Using data on graduates of 30 selective universities, we find only weak evidence of any relationship between collegiate racial composition and the postgraduation outcomes of white or Asian students. Our empirical results cover a broad range of outcomes, including earnings, educational attainment, and satisfaction with both one’s life and one’s job. Across these varying specifications, we fail to find any significant evidence that white or Asian students who attend more diverse colleges do better later in life. Moreover, the strongest evidence we uncover suggests that increasing minority representation by lowering admission standards is unlikely to produce benefits and may in fact cause harm by reducing the representation of minority students on less selective campuses.
Further analysis suggests that affirmative action is actually counterproductive, if its goal is to improve the productivity of majority race students. Preferential admissions for certain groups may still have a role in higher education, but they should be understood for what they are: redistributive mechanisms that create benefits for the targeted racial groups but costs for others."