The Case For Affirmative Action
He who is different from me does not impoverish me – he enriches me.
Affirmative action is a catchphrase whose use has been corrupted by politics, businesses, and academic institutions pushing forth their own agendas. It has made national headlines as the subject of Supreme Court cases, yet it is also a matter most often discussed in vague strokes and in closed quarters. Why is that? The answer is simple: the essence and rationale for affirmative action have been lost, diluted by the very people who made it necessary to implement in the first place. There were many real reasons affirmative action was put in place and there are even more for why it needs to stay a while longer.
Getting our bearings straight.
The presidential Executive Order that birthed affirmative action implores the end of all discrimination on the premises of “race, creed, color, national origin, and gender.” This policy, issued by the Kennedy administration, was wholly aligned with the fundamental notions upon which the United States was built–wasn’t America the promised land with opportunity for all?
Since the 60’s, additional attributes have been added to Kennedy’s order (e.g. sexual orientation) to continue ensuring that no group of people face unjust discrimination. To provide a pointed discussion on affirmative action moving forward, however, this piece will focus specifically on the premise of race in the context of college admissions. Henceforth, the term “minorities” will be referencing American students in the United States who do not qualify as racially white.
Pretty much any textbook examining American history will have chapters around the theme of injustice: injustice against African-, Hispanic-, Asian-, and Native Americans. These groups have long been on the receiving end of prejudice and oppression and, unfortunately, continue to face the ramifications today. In case someone disagrees, let’s quickly highlight some key examples:
- African Americans endured centuries of slavery. Need I say more? I’m sure we are all aware of the harrowing truth on this matter.
- Asian Americans faced the Immigration Act of 1924 which banned “undesirable immigration” making anyone with Asian heritage suddenly “undesirable.”
- Hispanic Americans also faced government-sanctioned actions. For example, the Mexican Repatriation Program deported American citizens with Mexican ancestry.
- Native Americans have been displaced since the arrival of America’s first settlers with tribal territories shrinking to just a fraction of what they used to be.
Just a bit of collateral damage.
Now that we’re all on the same page we can agree that the past was unforgiving, riddled with institutionalized discrimination, and peppered with favoritism for non-minorities. The effects of this past include, unsurprisingly, innumerable futures and lives lost. One of the most damaging effects, however, was the creation of a gap–more specifically, an educational gap. This discrepancy in education between whites and minorities was unlikely an explicit rationale for the discrimination, but it happened. It was an unplanned, unintentional side-effect of the centuries of injustice. In other words, collateral damage.
Aren’t we supposed to be discussing affirmative action?
So what of this educational gap? Well, that’s a brilliant question. Minorities were educated in segregated schools well into the 1960’s (contrary to popular belief, African Americans were not the only ones impacted by school segregation—in many parts of the country Mexican-, Asian- and Native Americans were also segregated). Today the segregation of schools is illegal, but education inequality remains a relevant issue. Notwithstanding the de jure end of segregation, de facto segregation hasn’t ceased: reports from the Government Accountability Office show that the percentage of K-12 public schools with high concentrations of black or Hispanic students (75-100%) has increased from 9% to 16% in the past 5 years; these schools also offer disproportionately fewer math, science, and college preparation courses.
Historically, non-whites were concentrated into select neighborhoods. Schools that served these neighborhoods thus catered almost exclusively to minorities. In the days of lawful segregation, these school districts were under-funded. The illegalization of segregation, however, did not elicit a change in funding structures. Under-funding continues to this day leading to fewer resources like books and laboratories, larger class sizes, and less qualified teachers. Research has shown that educational outcomes are a direct function of access to these very resources. Experienced and skilled teachers, a robust curriculum, and adequate teacher-to-student ratios are among key success drivers. Minorities, not having access to these resources, eventually became under-performing students. They only faced more struggles if they tried to change their situation and go to a better school district since those schools preferred students who outperformed their peers. Minorities now find themselves at an exponential disadvantage as they graduate high school and embark on the great American odyssey towards college education.
This is why affirmative action matters; this is why it exists. It aims to fairly distribute opportunities to minorities who start off at a disadvantage, levelling the playing field, if you will. Racial oppression has caused minorities to get a late start and affirmative action lends a hand in reversing the negative effects of years of historical, and continued, discrimination.
We know it’s unequal, but it’s okay.
The most common argument against affirmative action is that it is unequal. Let me tell you a secret: we know it is. The truth is most believers in affirmative action realize that it is intrinsically unequal. It makes a distinction between minorities and non-minorities, but we believe that it’s okay to do so. We don’t want the policy to last forever, but it needs to last until equal opportunity is incontestably afforded to all. Some of you may not buy what I’m saying, so I will provide the critics’ main arguments to show you exactly why, although unequal, we still need affirmative action.
Argument 1: Affirmative action provides an unfair advantage to minorities.
I’ve already admitted that affirmative action is unequal; however, it is not unfair. To believe that it provides an unfair advantage requires believing that all remnants of discrimination have disappeared, a statement that just isn’t true. Until we can be certain that no vestiges remain, the policy isn’t giving unfair advantages. Affirmative action does treat minorities differently, but it does so because allowing for that treatment is more fair than a selection process which does not take into account the circumstances minorities must face.
Argument 2: Affirmative action creates discrimination and bias against whites.
Affirmative action is a policy that is part of a larger effort towards total inclusion. The overarching goal is to overcome discrimination and unjust practices in higher education admissions, not to change the target of those practices. The best way to end exclusionary practices is to put special policies, like affirmative action, in place to ensure inclusion.
Argument 3: Students getting into schools through affirmative action perform worse.
The theory here is that enrolling minorities in schools they would not have attended otherwise leads to failure; a concept sometimes referred to as “mismatch effect.” Arguably, minorities may not be as well equipped for college due to aforementioned disadvantages. Does that equate a total incapability to succeed? Absolutely not. In fact, studies comparing class-based affirmative action to race-based affirmative action at elite institutions indicate that in both cases, students are more likely to succeed—to integrate academically, socially, and eventually graduate—than their counterparts who attended less selective schools. Before deeming a student academically incompetent, you should ask whether colleges are providing a safe space with counselling, tutoring, and support for minorities whose needs are unique and different.
Argument 4: Minorities don’t work as hard.
This argument, similar to the first, rests on the assumption that equal opportunity already exists which I’ve already mentioned is false. Only given that presumption could one argue that minority students do not need to work as hard to achieve the same success. Critics go so far as to argue that minorities are complacent and lack effort and will. Unfortunately, minorities have to actually work much harder every step of the educational path as they face disadvantages that reduce their ability to change their circumstances to move ahead.
Argument 5: Affirmative action does not provide a net positive benefit overall.
This is probably the argument I find most astounding and somewhat amusing. The whole point of affirmative action is that it benefits everyone. Of course the minorities benefit, as it rebalances the playing field for them, but it also benefits non-minorities because of diversity. Increased diversity improves educational experience and academic outcomes for all students. It also provides an environment that better reflects or represents the world beyond school (e.g. the workplace) and one that fosters tolerance and understanding of different cultures. In an increasingly globalized world, can you really try to play-down the importance of accepting and respecting diversity?
Green light for affirmative action.
I’m going to conclude this with a quote that packages my entire argument nicely:
“Affirmative action is the most important modern anti-discrimination technique ever instituted in the United States. No one who knows anything about the subject would say it hasn’t worked. It has certainly done something, or else it wouldn’t have provoked so much opposition.”
Orianne Montaubin (HBS ’18) is an RC from Section B whose first love is travel and the discovery of new cultures especially through culinary experiences. Prior to HBS, Orianne was an Associate at BCG in their Dubai office working in the public sector. She’s interested in consumer psychology and organizational behavior which has lead her to partake in academic research with HBS faculty in these fields. As for the future, she remains open to unique and interesting opportunities in either education, sports, or consumer goods.
Affirmative Action Hurts
Affirmative action, despite its good intentions, hurts the very minority groups the policy is trying to help. It leads to lower incomes, lower graduation rates, and lower academic satisfaction for its targeted “beneficiaries.”
The above statement just feels wrong. How can gaining a significant admissions preference to a university harm the intended beneficiary? The answer is mismatch theory, according to research by UCLA, Duke, and The Brookings Institute. The basic logic behind mismatch is students with lesser academic qualifications don’t benefit from being admitted to a more prestigious college. In other words, attending a school where your level of academic preparation is substantially lower than your typical classmates can lead to adverse outcomes. This applies equally to all students receiving a significant admissions preference, be they children of alumni, minority students, or violin virtuosos. Mismatch theory only applies to students receiving a significant admissions preference, not to minority students who are fully qualified to attend selective institutions, and who would thus benefit from attending these institutions.
To get a better feel for mismatch in practice, put yourself in the shoes of a freshman in an intro calculus class. Your classroom is full of students with an average SAT score of 1950, who are a little too eager to let that fact slip into casual conversation. You are a little hesitant to volunteer you scored a 1510 (The actual scores of regular admits and “beneficiaries” of affirmative action at the University of Texas, highlighted in the recent Supreme Court case on affirmative action). While your fellow students chat about their experiences taking pre-calculus in high school, you nervously admit you never had the chance to take it, as your school didn’t offer it. The professor, like most, announces her intention to teach to the “middle” of the class, and quickly races ahead. You struggle to keep up, and suddenly reconsider your physics major, which would require several of these quant heavy classes.
Mismatch driven by affirmative action policies leads to some shocking statistics, highlighted in a recent Atlantic article. Labor economists at the aforementioned institutions have found black college freshmen are more likely to aspire to science or engineer careers than white freshman, but mismatch causes black students to abandon these fields at twice the rate of white students. About half of black undergraduate students rank in the bottom 20% of their class, and half of black law school students fill the bottom 10% of their class. Black law school graduates are four times more likely to fail the bar exams as white law school graduates. Academic research has thus far focused on the negative impact affirmative action has on black students, but they expect similar results for other individuals receiving significant admissions preference, including children of alumni and athletes. All these statistics combine to lower incomes, lower graduation rates, and lower satisfaction with their academic experience.
Affirmative action is to blame for these horrible results, not the students themselves. These effects disappear for students attending schools in line with their academic ability. In fact, students attending less prestigious schools that match their academic level have higher salaries after graduation. For example, students graduating in the top third of their class at Penn State receive higher paying jobs than those in the bottom third at Princeton. As mentioned earlier, these results apply for all students receiving preferential admissions treatment, regardless of the reason for this preference.
Proponents of affirmative action will argue eliminating academic preferences for specific racial groups will decrease the number of admitted minority freshman. They are right. The passage of Prop 209 in 1996, which banned public institutions in California from considering race as part of admissions, decreased black freshman admission rates by almost 50% and Hispanic freshman admission rates by almost 25% at UCLA and UC Berkeley. But, the number of black and Hispanic students receiving bachelor’s degrees for the five years before and five years after Prop 209 remained the same. This drastically smaller group of minority freshmen was producing the same number of graduates! This is possible because ban of preferences led to better-matched students, illustrated by the doubling of black four-year graduation rates at UCLA after the passage of Prop 209. Additionally, minority students accepted offers to UCLA and UC Berkeley at much higher rates after the passage of Prop 209, in part because of the elimination of the stigma of preference. Another argument made by well-meaning supporters of affirmative action, like Dean Bock of Swarthmore College, is a more diverse student body is of such value to the overall academic experience, affirmative action is necessary. However, if one accepts the previous evidence that affirmative action hurts its supposed “beneficiaries,” then white students’ growth from diversity comes at the cost of lower incomes, graduation rates, and happiness among minority students, an unacceptable tradeoff.
Finally, at its most basic, affirmative action is discrimination against a set of races in favor of another set of races. Specifically, it is discrimination against Asian students. For example, a 2005 study found the percentage of Asian students at Ivy League schools would jump from 24% to 32% under a race-neutral system. This discrepancy has led to lawsuits by Asian-American groups against Harvard University. These groups point to the parallels with the creation of “holistic” admission policies by then Harvard President Lowell in the early 1900s to reduce the number of Jewish students, and the barriers Asians have faced in the United States, like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This argument over which racial group is more victimized, and thus deserving of counterproductive admissions preferences, points to some of the ethical issues posed by affirmative action.
Acknowledging the harmful impact of affirmative action policies allows us to shift resources and focus to other potential solutions. Fighting for school choice, performance-based pay for teachers, and the end of social promotion in K-12 schools are all tools that I believe can help eliminate the racial achievement gap before a student starts applying for colleges. Or, maybe an ed-tech startup currently iterating in the I-Lab will be the key to solving the problem. But the first step is acknowledging the disastrous unintended consequences of affirmative action; otherwise universities will continue to pat themselves on the back for their enlightened policies, while hurting those they are trying to help.
Andy Rougeot (HBS ’17) is an EC from Old Section D. Prior to HBS, Andy was a Military Intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, and after graduating will be searching for a small firm to acquire then run in Colorado.