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My friends call me a pessimist. But if you’re concerned that this piece is going to be a downer, in which I list all the ways universities will circumvent the Supreme Court’s Students for Fair Admissions ruling, relax. I’m very pleased with the Court’s decision.
Opponents of race-preferential admissions haven’t won the war, and things could still go awry. But we’ve gained some important legal weaponry, and we stand a decent chance of adding to the arsenal. (Forgive all the military metaphors: I’ve been “in the trenches” on this issue for almost three decades.)
Provided that “win” is defined realistically, the fight seems a lot more winnable now than it did before SFFA v. Harvard. Yes, colleges and universities will try to get around the ruling. But 100 percent compliance isn’t necessary for positive things to flow from the Court’s decision.
Here are some predictions for the coming year or so.
Some schools will experiment with doing away with standardized tests, but those that hope to be viewed as academically rigorous will quickly decide that they don’t like the results and will reverse course. MIT has already done so (after abandoning the SAT during the Covid-19 lockdowns). Some schools will experiment with preferences based on social class. They will find that there are a lot more low-income Asian Americans and whites than they realized (and that most of their African American and Latino applicants are not low-income). That may dampen their enthusiasm. But if they try to get around the problem by defining social class in a way that privileges one racial group over another, they will risk being a target in the next wave of lawsuits (which is surely coming).
Realistically, colleges and universities that want to avoid litigation will have to begin shrinking their academic credentials gap—i.e. the difference, at each institution, between the entering academic credentials of the average African American or Latino student and those of the average Asian American or white student. Currently, as a direct result of preferences, that gap is very large on most selective campuses, sometimes amounting to hundreds of points on the combined SAT.
Even a small reduction in these gaps will likely have beneficial effects. A substantial reduction could go a long way toward reversing many of higher education’s ills.
Here are some of the benefits to expect if those reductions materialize.
Better grades mean a better campus climate. No serious advocate of race-preferential admissions can deny that, currently, the academic credentials gap results in disappointing grades for preference beneficiaries. To be sure, some students outperform their entering credentials, just as some students underperform theirs, but most students perform in the range that their entering academic credentials suggest.
In 2005, law professors Ian Ayres and Richard Brooks—both advocates of race preferences—candidly agreed that the problem of disappointing grades is “real and serious” and that “the average black law student’s grades are startlingly low.” Ivy League presidents William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, among the most lionized defenders of race-preferential admissions policies, are an even more prominent example. In their pro-affirmative action book, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (1998), they admitted the problem: “College grades [for beneficiaries of race preferences] present a . . . sobering picture,” they wrote. “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.”
This academic gap has had a profound effect on campus culture. It casts a pall on everything. Nobody feels comfortable when they see that African American and, to a lesser extent, Latino students are disproportionately struggling. Minority students themselves wonder why they (and not other groups) are disproportionately struggling and whether the standards are fair. Under the circumstances, it’s tempting for students to wonder if the professor really is a racist. Instructors nervously use grade inflation to paper over the problem, but they can’t make it go away.
On the other hand, once colleges and universities move toward complying with the Supreme Court’s decision, the problem will begin to be ameliorated. As more African American and Latino students attend schools where their entering academic credentials make them competitive with their classmates, they will earn better grades. More will earn honors. When that happens, we can expect changes in campus culture. A few examples:
- The incentive of colleges and universities to allow runaway grade inflation should fade as low grades correlate less and less with race or ethnicity.
- The incentive for minority students and others to believe that academic standards are a sham should begin to dissolve. For years now, critical race theorists have argued that academic standards—indeed, all standards—are an expression of white supremacy. To minority students doing well in school, that message should begin to ring false.
- The tendency of many minority students to believe that they have more in common with students of the same race than they have with, say, students sharing the same major, should recede. And the self-segregation problem—insisting that universities provide separate student lounges, dormitories, and graduation ceremonies based on race—should also begin to ebb.
Am I being a Pollyanna for believing that the grade-point averages of under-represented minority students will climb now that the Supreme Court has ruled? I don’t think so. I’ve already seen it happen. On the University of California’s campuses, after Proposition 209’s ban on race-preferential admissions policies went into effect in 1998, grade-point averages changed dramatically in just a year.
Yes, the University of California’s flagship Berkeley campus had fewer “underrepresented minority” students. But on several other University of California campuses, all elite, minority numbers increased. The increase in grade-point averages is the key. Just prior to Proposition 209’s implementation, at the University of California at San Diego, only one African American freshman student out of a class of 3,268 had earned an honors level grade-point average of 3.5. By contrast, 20 percent of white students had done so. Immediately after Proposition 209 went into effect, the rate at which black freshmen earned freshmen honors shot up to 20 percent. Moreover, the number of African American students whose grade-point average put them into academic jeopardy fell from 15 percent to 6 percent.
It was exactly what I had hoped to see. If colleges and universities are less compliant with the law this time around, the beneficial effects may not be quite so dramatic—but they will still likely be observable.
Reducing mismatch means improving career outcomes. Having the opportunity to attend an elite university is a good thing. But the weight of the evidence suggests that doing well in school is more important for a student wishing to enter into a high-status career. Put differently, race-preferential admissions simply don’t work; they hurt rather than help their intended beneficiaries’ career prospects.
If research into the mismatch effect is correct (and I believe it is), we would have more African American scientists, engineers, and physicians and probably more African American lawyers and college professors if more such students had rejected the preferential treatment they received. That’s a thumping good reason to reject racial preferences. And yet colleges and universities have not taken this research seriously. They have not only ignored it but also sometimes made it impossible for scholars to access needed data to further their research into mismatch.
Fortunately, we don’t need colleges and universities to go cold turkey on racial preferences and disrupt the mismatch phenomenon. Even the most minimal and grudging compliance with the SFFA decision is likely to help. More under-represented minority students will enroll in schools where they can thrive. Each additional underrepresented minority student who, as a result, goes on to a useful, high-status career represents a victory.
It's worth noting that if only one elite university changes its admissions policy in response to the Supreme Court, that one university’s action can have a multiplier effect. Say, for example, an institution at or near the top of the pecking order decides not to eliminate the preferences it gives but just to cut down on them. That will mean that it declines to accept a few minority students who in previous years it would have accepted. Those students, of course, don’t disappear off the face of the earth. Rather, they will wind up attending a school where they have a greater chance of success. That school now has more underrepresented minority students than it did before, so it can afford to tighten its admissions policies without any sacrifice of the diversity it desires. The process can repeat at the next level. Partial compliance forges significant progress.
More work remains. I’m predicting good things from the Court’s decision, but here comes the caveat: if those who oppose race-preferential admissions just sit back and watch, assuming that their work is done, any gains may prove ephemeral.
The typical university these days employs large numbers of individuals who will view it as their job to thwart the Court’s decision. They’re already working on it. Either their numbers must be reduced or the number of individuals who want to ensure compliance with the Court’s decision must be increased. Or both.
So start with this: governors need to appoint state college and university trustees who will ensure that the law is obeyed. This is already happening in Florida; it needs to happen elsewhere. Higher education is too important to leave these governing boards to political donors who rubberstamp management decisions and enjoy their free box seats at football games. We need serious trustees who understand higher education’s problems. And they need to employ their own independent staff.
Similarly, state legislatures should follow Texas’s example and begin the process of defunding the diversity, equity, and inclusion apparatus on state campuses that helps support race-preferential admissions. The amount of money involved here is jaw-dropping. It is a scandal that universities are permitted to spend it in this way.
Careful thinking is also needed on where the incentives to discriminate come from and how best to counter them. A good example is the Hispanic Serving Institutions “HSI” program, which heaps federal monies on colleges and universities with student bodies that are at least 25 percent Hispanic. Unlike the Historically Black Colleges and Universities program (eligibility for which is based on the institution’s history), the HSI program creates an incentive for schools to discriminate to meet the 25 percent threshold. Colleges and universities close to that number fall all over themselves to get there. Given that the program is almost certainly unconstitutional, it should be defunded. If Congress desires, it could replace HSI with a program for colleges and universities with large numbers of students from low-income families.
I have other ideas—like reining in accreditors that pressure colleges and universities into discriminating. And I suspect others have ideas, too. Let’s get moving on the best ones.
Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images