In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education: Affirmative-Action Programs for Minority Students: Right in Theory, Wrong in Practice, by Camille Z. Charles (University of Pennsylvania), Mary J. Fischer (University of Connecticut), Margarita A. Mooney (University of North Carolina) & Douglas S. Massey (Princeton University):
The use of race-sensitive criteria in admissions continues to be controversial, and critics have leveled three basic charges against it.
For one, opponents say the practice constitutes reverse discrimination, lowering the chance of admission for better-qualified white students. They also contend that it creates a mismatch between the skills of minority students and the abilities required for success at selective institutions, setting those students up for academic problems. And they claim that it stigmatizes minority students as less than fully qualified, which results in demoralization and substandard performance, when in fact those students may be well qualified.
The first criticism has not stood up to empirical scrutiny. In fact, studies show that affirmative action generally has had only small and insignificant effects on the admission prospects of white students. The second criticism, or "mismatch hypothesis," also has not been supported by hard data. ...
The third argument, however, merits further consideration. If white students believe that many of their black peers would not be at a college were it not for affirmative action and, more important, if black students perceive whites to believe that, then affirmative action may indeed undermine minority-group members' academic performance by heightening the social stigma they already experience because of race or ethnicity. In addition, we have uncovered a fourth possibility: the idea that affirmative action exacerbates the psychological burdens that minority students must carry on campuses.
To measure affirmative action at the individual level, we computed the difference between the SAT scores earned by specific black and Latino students and the institutional average at 28 colleges and universities. According to our calculations, 84 percent of black students had test scores below their institutions' averages, compared with around 66 percent of Hispanics. Such results assume that minority-group SAT scores fall below the institutional average because admissions officers trade off test scores against other criteria associated with their desire to recruit more minority students — the essence of affirmative action.
To measure affirmative action at the institutional level of each campus, we took the difference between the average SAT score earned by blacks or Hispanics and that earned by all students at a particular institution. We hypothesized that the larger the gap, the more an institution used criteria other than test scores to determine minority admissions. Among the 28 institutions that we studied, none displayed mean black and Latino SAT scores that were above the institutional average, suggesting that all institutions practiced some form of affirmative action. The differences between the SAT scores of black students and all students at those institutions ranged from 43 to 194 points and averaged 122 points. For Hispanics the average difference was 61 points, with a range that went from 56 to 139.
Based on those findings, our research has revealed that black and Latino students with relatively low SAT scores do no better or worse than their counterparts who scored at or above the average for their institutions. Affirmative action does not appear to set individual students up for failure by creating a mismatch between cognitive skills and academic demands at competitive colleges and universities. Other things being equal, individual affirmative-action beneficiaries earn the same grades as other students.
But at the same time, we have found a significant effect of institutional affirmative action on the grade performance of black and Latino students. A sizable minority-majority test-score gap within any given institution appears to create a social context that makes it more difficult for minority students to perform academically. The greater the discrepancy in SAT scores between minority students and others on a particular campus, the lower the grades earned by black and Latino students as a group on that campus.
Indeed, our research suggests that the extensive use of race-sensitive criteria under institutional affirmative action, when it produces a large test-score gap between minority and other students on campuses, appears to lower minority achievement in two ways: Directly, it creates a stigmatizing social context within which black and Latino students find it more difficult to perform. Indirectly, it heightens the subjective performance burden experienced by individual minority students.
Our statistical analyses of the academic effects of affirmative action have produced results that challenge as much as reassure supporters of affirmative action in higher education. But the results of our research do not mean that affirmative action is necessarily detrimental to the academic interests of minority students and should be abandoned. Rather, the results imply that as currently administered by selective institutions, the application of race-sensitive admissions criteria appears to create a stigmatizing setting and should be reconsidered. Indeed, if the way affirmative action is administered and framed can be changed so as to mitigate the stigma now being created, its negative academic effects might disappear. ...
In the end, our finding that affirmative-action programs can undermine grade performance by stigmatizing students and increasing the pressure they feel to perform tells us less about the inherent weakness of affirmative action than about the poor fashion in which programs are carried out. Affirmative action taken to ensure the inclusion of athletes and legacies has operated for decades without creating debilitating performance burdens on either football players or the children of alumni. There is no good reason that affirmative-action programs for minority students cannot be run in the same way.