"We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today," Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor famously wrote in her majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger.
The Grutter decision came out in 2003, meaning that we are now almost precisely halfway through the 25-year period after which affirmative action in university admissions were set to expire. So the following questions seem especially timely, especially since the Court is poised to hear another major racial preferences admissions case this coming term: are racial preferences really on track to fade into the sunset in another 12.5 years? How well have they worked so far at achieving the intended goal of integrating racial and ethnic minorities into the middle classes and into the professions?
Unfortunately, a growing body of evidence suggests that the answer to the last question is "Not very well at all." The Heritage Foundation recently published an essay by Gail Heriot summarizing the state of the empirical evidence into the ways in which race preferences in college admissions have arguably harmed their intended beneficiaries:
"Mounting empirical research shows that race-preferential admissions policies are doing more harm than good. Instead of increasing the numbers of African Americans entering high-status careers, these policies reduce those numbers relative to what we would have had if colleges and universities had followed race-neutral policies. We have fewer African-American scientists, physicians, and engineers and likely fewer lawyers and college professors. If, as the evidence indicates, the effects of race-preferential admissions policies are exactly the opposite of what was originally intended, it is difficult to understand why anyone would wish to support them rather than adhere to the principle of color blindness.
One of the consequences of widespread race-preferential admissions policies is that talented minority students end up distributed among colleges and universities in patterns that are very different from those of their white and Asian counterparts. When the schools that are highest on theacademic ladder relax their admissions policies in order to admit more underrepresented minority students, schools one rung down must do likewise or they will have far fewer underrepresented minority students than they would have had under a general color-blind admissions policy. The problem is thus passed on to the schools another rung down, which respond similarly. As a result, students from underrepresented minorities today are concentrated at the bottom of the distribution of entering academic credentials at most selective colleges and universities.
The problem is not that no academically gifted African-American students are seeking admission to college and universities. The nation is fortunate to have many. But there are not enough at the very top tiers to satisfy the demand, and efforts to change that have had a pernicious effect on admissions up and down the academic pecking order, creating a serious credentials gap at every competitive level.
Unfortunately, a student whose entering academic credentials are well below those of the average student in a particular school will likely earn grades to match. Even former Princeton President William G. Bowen and former Harvard President Derek Bok, who were pioneers in formulating affirmative action policies, admit that the credentials gap has serious consequences. In The Shape of the River, they wrote, “College grades [for beneficiaries of affirmative action] present a … sobering picture…. The grades earned by African-American students at the [elite schools we studied] often reflect their struggles to succeed academically in highly competitive academic settings.”
Why is it not better to get bad grades at a top school than better grades at a school that is one or two rungs down from the top? Everyone knows that a good student can get in over his head if he is placed in a classroom with students whose level of academic preparation is much higher than his own. He can end up demoralized and learn less than he would have been capable of otherwise. Such a student, through no fault of his own, has been “mismatched.” He may give up on tough but rewarding majors in science and engineering and opt for soft majors that are less likely to lead to high-status careers.
The empirical evidence demonstrates that this is exactly what is happening: Beneficiaries of race-preferential admissions are, on average, less successful than similarly credentialed students who attend colleges and universities where those credentials put them in the middle or top of the class. Overall, race-preferential admissions policies as practiced today are hurting, not helping, when it comes to jump-starting the careers of preference recipients."
Read the whole thing here.