The Unraveling of Affirmative Action
Racial preferences spring from worthy intentions, but they have had unintended consequences—including an academic mismatch in many cases between minority students and the schools to which they are admitted. There's a better way to help the disadvantaged. By RICHARD SANDER and STUART TAYLOR JR.
Jareau Hall breezed through high school in Syracuse, N.Y. Graduating in the top 20% of his class, he had been class president and a successful athlete, and he sang in gospel choir. He was actively recruited by Colgate University in rural New York, one of the nation's top liberal-arts colleges. None of Colgate's recruiters mentioned to Mr. Hall that his combined math and verbal SAT scores were some 250 points below the class median—let alone that this would put him at great risk of academic difficulty. Many black and Hispanic students admitted to elite schools for which they are not prepared end up getting low grades, switching to easier majors, or dropping out altogether. WSJ's Gary Rosen discusses the problem with Stuart Taylor, Jr., co-author of a new book on the subject. Arriving at Colgate in 2002, he quickly found himself struggling in class, with far more rigorous coursework than he had ever faced. "Nobody told me what would be expected of me beforehand," recalls Mr. Hall, now 28. "I really didn't know what I was getting into. And it all made me feel as if I wasn't smart enough." To make things worse, recalls Mr. Hall, "I was immediately stereotyped and put into a box because I was African-American. And that made it harder to perform…. There was a general feeling that all blacks on campus were there either because they were athletes or they came through a minority-recruitment program and might not really belong there." Shaken by the experience, Mr. Hall dropped out after his freshman year. He eventually returned to Colgate and graduated in 2007. There are, of course, a great many students who are admitted under affirmative action and go on to successful careers, just as there are a significant number of black and Hispanic students at elite schools who get in without any preference. But stories like Mr. Hall's are both surprisingly common and seldom told. In fact, the majority of students admitted with large racial preferences struggle academically and often never come close to achieving their goals. At selective schools, more than 80% of blacks, and two-thirds of Hispanics, have received at least moderately large admissions preferences, according to our analysis of admissions data from several dozen selective schools—that is the equivalent of at least a 100-point SAT boost, and often much more. Students avoiding the problem of mismatch were 80% more likely to complete a science degree, according to one study. For more than 40 years, the debate over affirmative action in admissions has focused on whether it amounts to unfair and unconstitutional reverse discrimination against whites (and now Asians). The implicit premise for most people on both sides has been that racial preferences bring only benefits and no costs, apart from the possible stigma of being deemed "affirmative-action admits," to their black and Hispanic recipients. This premise was enough to make the two of us uncritical supporters of racial preferences until we began to examine the underlying facts. Key to nurturing the myth that racial preferences can only help their recipients has been a strong norm among college administrators to play down both the size of preferences they use and the difficulties these students encounter down the road. This concealment has had the unfortunate effect of misleading students and shielding preference policies from close scrutiny. But cracks of light have begun to leak through. There is now increasing evidence that students who receive large preferences of any kind—whether based on race, athletic ability, alumni connections or other considerations—experience some clear negative effects:...
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