Friday, November 26, 2021

Instead of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action in college admissions consists, at present, of applying lower standards to black applicants than to white, admitting black students who would be rejected on the basis of grades, SAT scores, and the like, if they were white. Putting aside the question of whether racial discrimination is good or bad, there are at least two serious problems with that policy, seen from the standpoint of the people it is supposed to benefit. 

The first was pointed out by Thomas Sowell in Choosing a College. A talented black student at the 90th percentile of the population in mathematical ability is admitted to MIT and finds himself at the bottom of a class where everyone else is at the 99th percentile. He would learn more at a slightly less selective school where classes were designed for people more like him. The same argument has been made more recently by Richard Sander in the context of law school admissions in Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It. He offers evidence suggesting that if law schools abandoned affirmative action fewer black students would enroll but more would pass the bar, hence there would be more black lawyers. 

 [A summary of some of the arguments and evidence on this issue

The second problem is that affirmative action helps the blacks least in need of it. Colleges and law schools are looking for the most qualified black students they can find. The child of a black surgeon in the suburbs is much more likely to meet that requirement then the child of a black janitor or a single mother in the inner city. 

In the course of a recent discussion on Facebook a commenter suggested a better way of doing what affirmative action is supposed to do, help disadvantaged kids. His proposal was that college admissions should favor applicants, black or white, from a low SES (socioeconomic status) background, those being the students who are most disadvantaged. In response to my pointing out the problems raised by letting students into schools that would be too difficult for them he responded: 

more likely you get kids that work harder and overcome obstacles better than their more privileged peers.

Another commenter proposed a way in which a school could decide whether favoring low SES applicants would get better students and if so by how much to favor them: 

there is simple quantitative solution to this problem. If two students apply to college with identical grades and test scores but one has faced and overcome serious obstacles and the other has not, I would guess that the student who overcame the obstacles would be a better student and do better in college. But the college does not have to guess. It has data. So colleges could easily measure this by developing a simple rubric and ranking applicants on "hardship" on a scale (say) of 1 - 10. Then once students are admitted and their college grades are in, run a regression of college grades on high school grades, the specific high school, test scores, and hardship. If you get statistically significant coefficients, that would determine how much weight to give hardship.

Replacing the present version of affirmative action with that policy would also solve two other problems. The first is that since employers know that schools engage in affirmative action they know that the fact that a black student went to Harvard, undergraduate or law school, is weaker evidence of his ability than the fact that a white student did. The second is that the present policy very nearly guarantees that white students will observe their black fellow students to be mostly at the bottom of the class and draw the obvious conclusion, encouraging racial prejudice. There are black law school students just as smart as the white students at Santa Clara University but, with rare exceptions, they are not at SCU because they got admitted to Stanford. 

Blind discrimination in favor of lower SES students could have the same effects, but not discrimination based on and calibrated to evidence that they were better students than their academic credentials showed.


Anonymous said...

I suspect Affirmative Action is working well for it's intended purpose. You just have the wrong idea about what its purpose is.

Mark V Anderson said...

I agree that racial affirmative action at colleges has the bad effects you indicate. But I don't see why affirmative action for low SES groups would be any better. You'd have the same problem of students being at the bottom of their class not being able to keep up. And I don't understand the benefit of intentionally bringing up a lower class person into the middle or upper class. Who is in each class is a zero sum game -- if you add another lower class person to the college, that means one less middle class person in the college, and if one more person comes out of the lower class, it means one more person moves down into the lower class.

Of course this doesn't mean colleges shouldn't give scholarships to brilliant lower class students that CAN keep up. But I think colleges already do this, so I think you are suggesting something else.

Arqiduka said...

My reading of the proposal is that it hinges on bringing people up on the basis of their expected results being on par, so on the expectation that they would be able to keep up once admitted.

What DF seems to be proposing is simply to explore whether "being able to keep up" can be at least partially predicted by SES, all else being equal. In practice I'd tend to agree that it wouldn't beyond the degree already accounted for by scholarships, but why not run the numbers I guess.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering on another solution though it may be a too expensive for the universities - on the other hand maybe they are able to find founding from all the PC/diversity companies like goolag or tracebook if they really believe in their declared values. What if the universities got rid of all the non meritocratic criteria and based the admission on the entry level exam only and instead of the affirmative action and all these preferential policies they would offer a free one year, fully founded preparation course for low SES students - so the people would live in the colleagues and attended a specially designed lectures / training that would focus on preparing them to pass the entry exam and to develop skills that would help them in further education - basically the goal would be to eliminate/reduce the disadvantage they might have due to their low SES. After one year they would be sent to normal entry level exams together with anybody else and the admission would be based on the exam score only without any additional preference given to them?