Students admitted to an elite Indian university under affirmative action were less prepared than their classmates and fell even further behind after arriving on campus, two Pennsylvania State University researchers found in what they say is a cautionary tale of well-intentioned but inefficient education policy.
In the paper  (abstract only, and full article for purchase) published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors point out that India’s affirmative action policies are more sweeping than those in the U.S. and do not propose that their findings would hold true for American colleges.
Penn State researchers Verónica C. Frisancho Robles, a doctoral candidate, and Kala Krishna, a professor of economics, examined the 2008 graduating class of the Indian Institute of Technology, in Delhi. They found that many arguments advanced by critics of affirmative action – that students admitted under the laws lack the academic credentials to succeed and are unable to keep pace with other students – proved true at IIT’s Delhi campus, which routinely admits less than 1 of every 60 applicants.
“You really have an impossible situation,” Krishna said. “I very much believe people who are behind deserve more chances than those who are not, but the question is how to do this most efficiently.”
She suggested intensive training programs to boost minority performance before students show up on a world-class campus.
“Rather than throw people into the deep end and say, ‘Sink or swim on your own, but we’ll let you in,’” she said, “maybe allow the disadvantaged multiple chances at catching up before they jump in.”
Indian affirmative action laws benefit members of tribal populations and lower castes who were traditionally relegated to the margins of Indian society. The laws require institutions to admit 15 percent of their students from lower castes and 7.5 percent from tribal populations, roughly in line with their percentage of the population in the nation of more than 1.1 billion people.
Unlike the strict ethnic quotas in India, American affirmative action is far more nuanced. Though government-sponsored affirmative action is banned in some states, many U.S. colleges with competitive admissions consider a student’s racial or economic background in making admissions decisions. But they do so in concert with high school grades, standardized test scores, essays and community involvement.
Not so in India. At IIT, admission is decided by performance on a national test of students’ skills in math, chemistry and physics. For example, admission to an IIT program might require a score in at least the 97th percentile. For those covered by affirmative action, that cutoff can drop as far as the 47th percentile. Even still, universities can’t always fill the prescribed seats with minority students, prompting critics to ask whether such policies dilute the quality of the university system.
The research team was unable to secure the entrance exam scores of the IIT's 2008 graduating class, so instead used students' grade-point averages at the end of their first year to measure initial performance and compared that with their grades at graduation. What they found is that lower-caste and tribal students in selective majors performed worse relative to other students in that same major as upperclassmen than they had as first-year students. Those in less-selective majors maintained about the same class rank.
The Indian government’s rationale for affirmative action is that, in a more demanding academic setting, minority students can catch up with their peers and go on to high-paying careers that for generations would have been unattainable. But instead of catching up, Robles and Krishna found that IIT minorities tended to fare worse in comparison with nonminorities as college progressed.
Robles and Krishna did find affirmative action at IIT to be successful in targeting poorer minority students rather than affluent members of lower castes. A frequent criticism of American and Indian affirmative action is that they sometimes give preference to well-off minorities rather than the most disadvantaged students.
But instead of rigorous majors leading to higher salaries, the study discovered students admitted under affirmative action in less-selective fields made more than their peers in competitive fields like electrical engineering. The opposite was true for other students. Robles and Krishna found that trend extended beyond the classroom, as lower caste and tribal students in highly selective programs were more likely to be depressed, stressed, lonely or facing discrimination than those pursuing less rigorous majors.
“What India shows,” Krishna said, “is that if you do this to the extremes, you may even be harming the people you’re trying to help.”