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 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT