The US Supreme Court in April upheld Michigan’s ban on race-based affirmative action in university admissions.
Indeed, affirmative action as we know it is probably doomed: voters have banned it at universities in at least eight states, and four more look likely to follow suit.
The Economist has argued against race-based admissions policies. Instead, we encourage selection procedures that offer modest preferences to economically disadvantaged students. This is the plan set out in “Place, Not Race”, a new book from Sheryll Cashin of Georgetown Law School.
She proposes a race-blind, class-based type of affirmative action whereby students who have thrived in poor schools or rough neighbourhoods are given special consideration. Some worry that this may lead colleges to accept ill-prepared applicants, who may then drop out (a problem that has plagued some universities with race-based preferences). But new research suggests that these concerns may be unjustified.
In an article published in the latest issue of the Economics of Education Review, Sigal Alon of Tel Aviv University and Ofer Malamud of University of Chicago write about the promising results of a colour-blind, class-based affirmative-action programme in Israel. In the early 2000s, four of Israel’s most selective universities began giving preferential treatment to poorer students, as indicated by an applicant’s neighbourhood and high school. Based largely on these two factors, an applicant is scored on an index of socioeconomic disadvantage; those who meet a pre-determined threshold are eligible for special consideration, but not guaranteed admission. After analysing the academic outcomes of more than 5,000 students, the authors found three particularly noteworthy results.
First, those who met the threshold were more likely than average students to have come from deprived neighbourhoods, to be of Asian, African or Arabic origin, to have immigrated and to be poor. Second, the policy had a significant impact on admissions; applicants who met the threshold were 13% more likely to have been accepted to one of the four elite institutions than those who fell just short of the required number of points. Third, the students who were likely to have been admitted in part because of their disadvantaged backgrounds did not fall behind; they had the same average GPA and graduation rate as their peers who were ineligible for the programme. The researchers concluded that the programme works. It has increased the diversity of the student bodies at top universities by helping the poor without increasing the risk of admitting unqualified applicants. Students admitted through the programme “are not falling behind academically, even at the most selective majors,” the authors found.
Israel is a unique—and uniquely small—country with its own social complications, and there is no guarantee that a programme that works there would work in America. But the study offers some hope for those who seek to create more diverse student bodies and perhaps improve social mobility without explicitly privileging groups based on race.
Source: The Economist