Skip to main content

Keep affirmative action but reform it

By Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr., Special to CNN
updated 2:36 PM EDT, Wed October 10, 2012
Supporters of affirmative action rally outside the Supreme Court in 2003 when justices heard the Grutter v. Bollinger case.
Supporters of affirmative action rally outside the Supreme Court in 2003 when justices heard the Grutter v. Bollinger case.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Supreme Court is taking up affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas
  • Richard Sander, Stuart Taylor: Large racial preferences can hurt minority students
  • They say the court will probably not abolish affirmative action in the case
  • Writers: Reforming affirmative action policies can improve diversity goals

Editor's note: Richard Sander, a law professor at UCLA, and Stuart Taylor Jr., a journalist and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, are the authors of "Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit it."

(CNN) -- Affirmative action -- which is coming up before the Supreme Court on Wednesday in Fisher v. University of Texas -- has long been one of America's most divisive social policies. But it doesn't need to be.

Universities engage in many forms of affirmative action that are uncontroversial, such as efforts to reach out and encourage minority applicants, or initiatives to make sure that admissions officers are going beyond test scores to find the strongest candidates.

The battle is really about the use of racial preferences in admissions, especially the large preferences often used by selective schools that, in effect, add a full point to the high school grade-point average of every black applicant, and half a point to every Hispanic applicant, or otherwise adjust the academic qualifications of black and Hispanic applicants so as to make them appear, for purposes of comparison with white and Asian applicants, much more academically prepared than they actually are. These policies are often justified as ways of ensuring fair minority representation -- which, in turn, is supposed to foster a better learning environment for everyone.

Richard Sander
Richard Sander

But a growing stack of carefully vetted research is finding that these large preferences often undermine the very goals they are intended to promote, because they do a poor job of matching students to the college environments in which they are most likely to thrive. A student who would do extremely well at Wake Forest ends up at struggling at Duke; a student who would thrive at a strong state university gets recruited away to the Ivy League and becomes a marginal student.

News: The young woman at the center of the SCOTUS challenge

Stuart Taylor Jr.
Stuart Taylor Jr.

For example, students who aspire to careers in science or engineering (STEM fields), and who get into a school where they are surrounded by academically stronger students, have low odds of actually getting a STEM degree. Yet these students have what it takes to have a successful career in STEM -- if they go to the right school. A careful study led by University of Virginia psychologist Fred Smyth found that the well-matched minority students were nearly 80% more likely to achieve their STEM aspirations. Three other studies have confirmed Smyth's findings.

In Fisher -- the case before the Supreme Court -- the University of Texas reintroduced racial preferences in 2004 because, it said, it wanted to achieve racial balancing of minority students in its classes. But it has pursued this goal with very large preferences, and since these students are likely to retreat from the most competitive and rigorous classes to softer fields, the use of racial preferences can easily have little or no effect at all upon classroom integration.

The mismatch problem undermines diversity goals in other ways, too. Undisputed research has found that students are more likely (holding other things, such as race, constant) to make friendships with other students who have comparable levels of academic preparation. When colleges use large preferences, they interfere with social assimilation, and the minorities who are the "beneficiaries" of these preferences often feel socially isolated and self-segregate. Indeed, preferences that are so large that they produce disparities in academic performance across racial lines are likely to foster negative stereotypes -- just the opposite of what diversity programs are supposed to achieve.

In short, large racial preferences, and indeed large preferences of any other kind (e.g., for children of alumni, for athletes, etc.) are often counterproductive. Yet universities continue to use them, partly because they may not understand the consequences of mismatch, but mainly because they are under tremendous pressure to achieve a particular racial balance -- at whatever cost -- in their student bodies. These are exactly the situations where government regulation has a helpful role to play, and the Supreme Court is poised to play it.

News: Affirmative action under pressure in Supreme Court

Many observers are predicting that the court, with five conservative votes, will simply abolish racial preferences. That strikes us as unlikely; Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote, is more likely to put teeth in the court's earlier holdings and simply create some tougher tests that universities must satisfy if they use racial preferences.

Two reforms seem to us particularly important: Find a way to limit the overall size of racial preferences, and mandate a thorough transparency at any university that wants to use them.

Limiting the size of racial preferences means making smaller, race-based adjustments to applicant qualifications -- or, to put it differently, not ignoring very wide differences in academic preparation across racial lines. And by transparency we mean three things: Disclose to applicants the way that admissions decisions are made, provide information about how students such as the applicant have fared at that university, and make some form of all this information available to the public and to watchdog groups. In other words, students need to have all available information about whether they are jeopardizing their success in college by accepting a large preference into a more elite school.

These sorts of reforms would represent a radical departure from past practices; they would create a level of accountability that simply does not exist in colleges today. And they would almost certainly moderate the use of a controversial and often ineffective tool of social policy -- racial preferences -- without the heavy hand of a complete ban.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT