Is Affirmative Action in Decline or Out of Control?

Dueling studies arrive -- one seeing colleges moving away from consideration of race and one drawing attention to the use of race.
October 9, 2008

With voters in Colorado and Nebraska preparing to vote on proposals to bar affirmative action, supporters and defenders of the consideration of race in admissions decisions are releasing new research to bolster their positions.

The Center for Equal Opportunity -- a group that has worked for years to bar the consideration of race and ethnicity -- on Wednesday issued findings about admissions to the law school at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Those data show significant race and ethnicity gaps in the LSAT scores and college grades of applicants who were admitted in recent years to the law school.

At the same time, two sociologists have just published an analysis suggesting that affirmative action is in decline -- and has never been as widespread as some imagine in states that have barred the use of race in admissions decisions.

'The Declining Significance of Race'

For all the debate about the consideration of race in admissions, and the Supreme Court's ruling that colleges may continue to do so (in some circumstances), a new article in the American Journal of Education (University of Chicago Press) builds on earlier research by the authors to show that affirmative action is in decline in American higher education.

Eric Grodsky of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Demetra Kalogrides of the University of California at Davis have been analyzing data from the College Board on colleges' admissions policies and have previously documented that since 1995, the percentage of colleges considering race has been falling -- regardless of the impact of various state bans on affirmative action.

Their new study builds on this research, and finds that affirmative action -- far from being as widespread in higher education as its critics portray -- isn't the norm. By 2003, only about one third of private colleges nationally and of public institutions without legal prohibitions on affirmative action said that they considered race in admissions, the study finds.

In addition, they note that the prevalence of affirmative action isn't necessarily a cause for the movement to abolish it. In 1986, prior to the state bans that started to appear because of court rulings and referendums, 44 percent of colleges in states that would eventually ban affirmative action said that they considered race in admissions. In the rest of the country, that percentage was 57 percent.

That institutions pulled back in both groups of states isn't surprising, the authors write, even though colleges in most states didn't face the direct necessity to do so. "As the legal environment changes, or even as it is perceived to change, risk-averse institutions may simply abandon or repackage their affirmative action programs to avoid scrutiny, abandoning race-conscious admissions as one component of a broader effort to continue to attract diverse classes of students."

Admission Rates at Nebraska's Law School

The Center for Equal Opportunity has issued numerous reports comparing the grades and test scores of white and minority students and public colleges and universities -- using state open records laws to obtain the data. The gaps from state to state aren't shocking, given that there are national gaps in these data, but studies by the center have been politically powerful as states have considered admissions policies.

Nebraska has been something of a challenge for such an approach as the state is largely white and its admissions competition is comparatively low-key compared to that at the University of Michigan or the University of California -- sites of previous showdowns over affirmative action. Hence the focus on the law school at Lincoln, which does have competitive admissions.

The data released by the center found large gaps by race in the ranges of students admitted by the law school. In a two-year period, the center said, 5 Hispanic, 12 Asian, and 389 white applicants were rejected by the law school despite higher test scores and undergraduate grades than the average black student admitted in those years.

Taken together, the center said that the data show that the odds favoring black over white applicants with the same background and academic credentials were 442 to 1. For Hispanic applicants, the odds radio was about 90 to 1. Looking purely at race and state residency (a key factor in public university admissions), said Roger Clegg, president of the center, "a white resident of Nebraska in 2007 was more than 20 times less likely to be admitted than an African American applicant from out of state.”

Steven L. Willborn, dean of the law school, said he hadn't been able to analyze all of the data used by the center to produce its report. But he said that important context was missing. He noted that in recent years, black applicants have made up about 5 percent of the application pool -- and 5 percent of admitted students. "We're talking about a dozen students a year," he said.

Willborn said that minority students are not the only ones who may benefit from an admissions boost. "We try for a diverse group of students," he said. "We also give preferences for people who speak Mandarin, an NCAA All-American, and to people who overcome economic disadvantage, and I defend what we do vigorously," he said.

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