After Supreme Court justices debated the use of race in college admissions in oral arguments over a landmark case Wednesday, one question jumped out for many people: Could affirmative action based on race actually hinder some of the students it was designed to help, as some justices suggested?
Sigal Alon, an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University and author of a new book from the Russell Sage Foundation,”Race, Class, and Affirmative Action,” explains what her research indicates: Affirmative action, whether based on race or class, does not hurt recipients’ chances of success.
By Sigal Alon
As the Supreme Court revisits Fisher v. University of Texas, and potentially the future of affirmative action in American higher education, we are seeing a recurring myth raised in the original case resurface.
In his concurring opinion on Fisher in 2013, Justice Clarence Thomas posited that as a result of race-based affirmative action, “many blacks and Hispanics who likely would have excelled at less elite schools are placed in a position where underperformance is all but inevitable because they are less academically prepared than the white and Asian students with whom they must compete.”
Thomas went on to say that, because of affirmative action, these students “may learn less” than if they had attended less elite schools.
During oral arguments Wednesday, Justice Antonin Scalia said that “really competent blacks” would not need special considerations to be admitted to selective colleges.
“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to — to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well,” he said.
They are wrong.
This claim, known as the mismatch hypothesis, is used to promote the class-based road to affirmative action in place of race-conscious admissions.
The assumption is that the beneficiaries of class-based affirmative action are not destined for failure in elite academic settings.
With new evidence to evaluate this claim my research confirms that this mismatch problem does not exist in affirmative action.
For my book “Race, Class, and Affirmative Action,” I studied a race-neutral, class-based affirmative action policy that was implemented in the mid-2000s by four of Israel’s most selective universities. The first of its kind to be implemented in university admissions anywhere in the world, this policy favors applicants from socioeconomically underprivileged backgrounds in admissions and does not take race into consideration at all.
Using the data from the Israeli universities, I examined what the academic outcomes of the class-based admits would have been if they had enrolled at less selective programs. I compared the academic outcomes — grades and graduation chances — of students from two groups: students who just barely passed the disadvantage cutoff for this voluntary class-based policy (the beneficiaries of the policy) and similar students who applied for preferential treatment but were just below the cutoff (did not benefit from the policy).
The results prove that eligibility for class-based affirmative action is not associated with subpar academic performance.
The beneficiaries of affirmative action do just as well academically, if not better, than other students. Overall, class-based admits are more likely to graduate and do so with slightly higher grades relative to those admits just below the affirmative action cutoff.
Thus, the claim that the beneficiaries of class-based affirmative action will not find it hard to keep up with their classmates at elite institutions is correct.
But does the mismatch hypothesis still hold true for race-conscious admissions policies? In my analyses, I compared minority students who benefited from race-based affirmative action and attended elite colleges in the U.S., to students from deprived socioeconomic backgrounds who would have been eligible for class-based affirmative action if they had been implemented at elite colleges.
Both groups of high school graduates had similar test scores, AP courses and grades before college. In fact, the test scores and high school GPAs of the class-based admits are higher, on average, than those of the race-based admits.
Yet, I find that the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action at elite American institutions are better integrated academically and socially by the end of their first years in college, compared to their counterparts from socioeconomically underprivileged backgrounds who attended less selective schools, and are more likely to complete their bachelor’s studies.
The findings from both countries, when taken together, unequivocally establish that affirmative action, whether class- or race-based, does not harm admits’ success in college or labor market prospects.
To the contrary, the beneficiaries of preferential treatment in college admissions in Israel and the U.S. thrive at elite colleges. They would not be better off attending less selective colleges instead.
Experts predict that the Supreme Court may pressure schools to find race-neutral ways of achieving student diversity and American colleges and universities may decide to move from race to class in affirmative action, but the court should think twice before using the mismatch myth as a rationale for this move.