Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The opportunity cost of affirmative action admission 

Something jumped out at me while reading Jonah Goldberg's piece this afternoon on the use of racial preferences in admissions:
Jian Li, a freshman at Yale, filed a civil-rights complaint against Princeton University for rejecting him. Li had nigh-upon perfect test scores and grades, yet Princeton turned him down. He�ll probably get nowhere with his complaint � he did get into Yale after all � but it shines a light on an uncomfortable reality.

�Theoretically, affirmative action is supposed to take spots away from white applicants and redistribute them to underrepresented minorities,� Li told the Daily Princetonian. �What�s happening is one segment of the minority population is losing places to another segment of minorities, namely Asians to underrepresented minorities.�

Li points to a study conducted by two Princeton academics last year which concluded that if you got rid of racial preferences in higher education, the number of whites admitted to schools would remain fairly constant. However, without racial preferences, Asians would take roughly 80 percent of the positions now allotted to Hispanic and black students.

In other words, there is a quota � though none dare call it that � keeping Asians out of elite schools in numbers disproportionate to their merit. This is the same sort of quota once used to keep Jews out of the Ivy League � not because of their lack of qualifications, but because having too many Jews would change the �feel� of, say, Harvard or Yale. Today, it�s the same thing, only we�ve given that feeling a name: diversity.
OK, I thought, what study is this? Took only a few minutes to discover a study by Espenshade and Chung published in Social Science Quarterly last summer. The results are worth quoting, and the whole paper is quite interesting:
Data for the 1997 entering class indicate that eliminating affirmative action would reduce acceptance rates for African-American and Hispanic applicants by as much as one-half to two-thirds and have an equivalent impact on the proportion of underrepresented minority students in the admitted class. White applicants would benefit very little by removing racial and ethnic preferences; the white acceptance rate would increase by roughly 0.5 percentage points. Asian applicants would gain the most. They would occupy four out of every five seats created by accepting fewer African-American and Hispanic students. The acceptance rate for Asian applicants would rise by one-third from nearly 18 percent to more than 23 percent. We also show that, even though athlete and legacy applicants are disproportionately white and despite the fact that athlete and alumni children admission bonuses are substantial, preferences for athletes and legacies do little to displace minority applicants, largely because athletes and legacies make up a small share of all applicants to highly selective universities.
As Gene Expression noted when the article first came out, it offends one's sensibilities for "
Asian students to pay the price of racial good-will." I find it equally interesting that legacy admissions has such a small effect on the sorting of students in the admissions process.

Peter Kirsanow asks whether or not the University of Michigan is aware of the opportunity cost and who pays. You might want to hope that this will turn the tide against affirmative action in admissions, but before you do say hello to Carol Iannone and some real cold water.