What if the Supreme Court had banned affirmative action? What if colleges moved away from the use of affirmative action on their own?
A new study by two Princeton University researchers uses admissions data from elite colleges to portray what would happen in such a world without affirmative action. In short, black and Latino enrollment would tank, while white enrollments would hardly be affected. The big winners would be Asian applicants, who appear to face "disaffirmative action" right now. They would pick up about four out of five spots lost by black and Latino applicants.
The study was conducted by Thomas Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton, and Chang Chung, a senior staff member in the university's Office of Population Research. The study will appear in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly.
"We're trying to put these admission preferences in context so people understand that lots of students, including those with SAT scores above 1500, are getting a boost," said Espenshade. "The most important conclusion is the negative impact on African American and Hispanic students if affirmative action practices were eliminated."
The study found that, without affirmative action, the acceptance rate for African American candidates at elite colleges would be likely to fall by nearly two-thirds, from 33.7 percent to 12.2 percent, while the acceptance rate for Hispanic applicants probably would be cut in half, from 26.8 percent to 12.9 percent.
Those drops, in turn, could prompt additional losses, the authors warn. "If admitting such small numbers of qualified African-American and Hispanic students reduced applications and the yield from minority candidates in subsequent years, the effect of eliminating affirmative action at elite universities on the racial and ethnic composition of enrolled students would be magnified beyond the results presented here," the report says.
Drops of that magnitude in admission rates would have serious impacts on those who actually enroll. The percentage of admitted students who are black would fall to 3.3 percent, from 9 percent. For Hispanics, the drop would be to 3.8 percent, from 7.9 percent.
Such dramatic changes in policy would have little impact, however, on white applicants. Their admission rate would rise slightly, to 24.3 percent, from 23.8 percent.
The big gains would be for Asian applicants. Their admission rate in a race-neutral system would go to 23.4 percent, from 17.6 percent. And their share of a class of admitted students would rise to 31.5 percent, from 23.7 percent.
The Princeton scholars also studied the impact of admission preferences for athletes and for alumni children and found that both groups are overwhelmingly white. However, despite the advantages such applicants receive, the study found little impact on overall demographics. That's because the total proportion of applicants in such categories is relatively small -- 3.1 percent for alumni children and 4.5 percent for athletes.
The study backs up the statements of many educators that the elimination of affirmative action right now would displace many minority students and decrease diversity at top institutions.
But Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a group that opposes affirmative action, said that the study was irrelevant to the arguments he makes against current admissions policies. He said that there is an assumption behind the study that people don't want Asian enrollments to go up, and that affirmative action is somehow stronger if white students aren't hurt by it.
The problem with affirmative action, he said, is that it is discrimination, regardless of who benefits. "It's always useful to put the shoe on the other foot," he said. "Suppose Ole Miss had argued that the fact that it discriminated against blacks wasn't such a big deal because most of them would be turned down anyway. No one would find that argument very persuasive."
He also questioned whether the displaced minority students would really be hurt. Students who are less qualified are less likely to succeed, he said, and may be more likely to succeed a notch down the college prestige rankings. "It is not the end of the world if a black student ends up going to the University of Virginia instead of Princeton, or to Virginia Tech instead of U.Va.," he said.