Be sure to receive our expert commentary on racial preferences and other issues. Sign up for the City Journal newsletter today.

Read more of our affirmative action and preferences coverage here.

Near the end of its just-concluded term, the Supreme Court ended the half-century reign of Roe v. Wade and forced several blue states to grant gun-carry permits more liberally. The six-justice majority of Republican-appointed “originalists” intends to leave its mark on the law, and it’s not skirting controversy. The Court’s next term, starting in October, promises more landmarks. Among other cases, the justices will hear challenges to racial preferences in admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina—one a private school and the other public. Conservatives on the Court have long doubted that such policies are legal.

The Constitution limits the use of race by government entities. More explicitly, federal law states that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” If the justices simply take those words to mean what they say, any school receiving federal funds will have to stop considering race. The ultimate impact of that decision is hard to predict—many schools will, no doubt, continue to use race covertly, or even restructure their entire admissions processes to get their desired ethnic mix through an ostensibly colorblind system. (Many are already dropping standardized tests, for instance.) But the days of schools openly using applicants’ races as a “plus factor” are almost certainly numbered.

The affirmative-action debate’s many dimensions—legal, ethical, and more—will receive another airing in the months ahead. But in a new Manhattan Institute issue brief, I examine a more empirical topic that strikes to the heart of affirmative action’s purpose: To what extent do affirmative action’s beneficiaries suffer from being “mismatched” with better-qualified peers, rather than benefiting from enhanced educational opportunities?

The question is hard to answer, both because social science is always difficult and because schools have been reluctant to release the needed data. Some things are clear, others quite muddy.

First, while many colleges are basically unselective, pickier schools do use race in their admissions processes, sometimes quite heavily, admitting students from underrepresented minority groups who’d have had little chance if they were white. In a recent paper, for instance, Peter Arcidiacono, Josh Kinsler, and Tyler Ransom looked at the data shaken loose from the two schools currently before the Supreme Court. At Harvard, blacks get a fourfold increase in their chances of admission. At UNC, black applicants get a 70 percent increase if they’re in-state and a more than tenfold increase if they’re applying through the far more competitive out-of-state pool.

Second, schools rely on criteria such as test scores and high school grades to begin with because these variables predict success in college. So, when some students are let in with lower credentials than their peers, they tend to fall behind those peers academically.

But third, there’s lots of debate over whether these students would be better off at lower-ranked schools in concrete ways—completing difficult majors without switching to easier ones, graduating, passing the bar (in the case of law school). The evidence is stronger for some outcomes than others, but a commonsense way of interpreting the literature is simply that affirmative action has different effects in different situations. If someone barely misses the admissions cutoff for a great school, a little boost will almost certainly make him better off, but a woefully underprepared student at a fast-moving law school might fail to keep up and flunk the bar.

How far out of step the student is and how demanding the field of study is represent two key factors. Some colleges, even elite ones, will find a way to graduate just about anyone, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology requires all students to pass “two semesters of calculus, plus two semesters of calculus-based physics.” But beyond such generalities, there’s no consensus as to where the line is. A student accepted into a school where his peers will have higher qualifications than he does can therefore have an extremely difficult decision to make.

What is to be done? The Supreme Court’s decision won’t moot this topic, even if schools comply with the ruling in good faith. Common alternatives to race-based affirmative action, such as preferences based on class or geography, can also create mismatch. I propose a simple solution: give kids accurate information about how they’ll likely fare in the college programs that accept them, based on how similar students have performed in those same programs. If mismatch is likely to be a problem in a student’s own particular situation, this information may dissuade him from attending; if not, not.

Recent years have seen a broad push toward providing better data on colleges, such as the government’s College Scorecard, which reveals—not just for schools but also for individual majors—important statistics such as graduation rates and median earnings after graduation. My additional suggestion is simply to work out how these outcomes vary based on students’ entering credentials. Sure, the overall graduation rate for a biology major at Big State U may be 80 percent, but what’s the graduation rate for students who came in with a 1000, 1200, or 1400 on the SAT?

This is common sense, and others have made similar proposals. In a 2017 Urban Institute brief, Jordan Matsudaira suggested giving students “personalized predictions of the likelihood that they complete programs of interest and the earnings outcomes associated with these programs,” predictions that would benefit from data on students’ academic backgrounds. Arcidiacono, Kinsler, and Ransom have written that “universities have a moral imperative to provide students with accurate information about their prospects of success,” adding that universities already employ professors capable of calculating, for example, average grades and dropout probabilities for different types of students.

Liberals and conservatives do not see eye to eye on affirmative action, and a Supreme Court decision will not settle the matter. They should be able to agree, however, to help prospective college students make better-informed decisions when they choose a school.

Photo: marcoventuriniautieri/iStock


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next