Traditional measures to increase diversity in US universities penalise the poor

Jimmy Chan, Erik Eyster , Fri, 05/04/2007



Ethnic and racial diversity at American colleges and universities has recently become a major issue of political debate, and the authors of CEPR DP6278 examine public attitude to measures adopted to ensure such diversity.

Diversity in student bodies cannot be achieved simply by accepting the applicants with the highest grades and exam scores as applicants from minority groups tend to score lower in both. The traditional approach to encourage diversity in American universities has been through affirmative-action policies, which set a lower admissions standard for underrepresented minorities. These policies have proved unpopular among white voters and a series of court rulings, state legislations and ballot referenda have banned race-conscious admissions in many US states.

Instead, universities have had to adopt other measures which place less emphasis on academic achievement in admissions. In Texas, legislation has been passed requiring public universities to admit any Texas resident graduating in the top 10% of their high school class. This produces diversity as high schools in the state tend to be racially segregated.
While affirmative action appeals to university officials as minority candidates replace the majority candidates with the worst academic record, it is politically unpopular as it is the majority candidates with the lower grades and exam scores that are most at risk of losing out to a minority candidate. As candidates from higher socioeconomic groups tend to have higher academic ability, it is the candidates from poorer backgrounds that are at risk. The increasing income inequality in the US means that while the white majority still favour diversity in universities, race-based affirmative action is less popular among voters than other measures.

The authors suggest that a combination of race-based and class-based affirmative action may be the way to minimise the impact on candidate quality while still fostering political support for diversity.

CEPR DP6278 The Distributional Consequences of Diversity-Enhancing University Admissions Rules

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Topics:  Productivity and Innovation

Tags:  affirmative action, university admissions, diversity

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