In the Summer 2019 issue of Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine, Professor Dennis Weisman of Kansas State University offers a benign view of college admissions preferences. In “What Constitutes ‘Discrimination’ in College Admissions?” Weisman argues that since colleges admit many students for reasons other than their high degree of academic ability, there’s no good reason to complain about racial preferences that supposedly enhance campus “diversity.”
Professor Weisman’s case is not persuasive. Choosing to admit students (or to hire faculty or administrators) just because those individuals happen to have ancestry that puts them into groups favored by educational leaders is not justified by any gains to the institution. All it does is give college officials a feeling of personal satisfaction that they have contributed in the battle for “social justice.” I will return to that point later.
What Educational Benefits?
First, Weisman relies on the jaded claim that having a “diverse” student body promotes learning and racial understanding, quoting Justice O’Connor’s opinion in the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger. He writes that she “reasoned” in her opinion that having a diverse student body “promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, for society, and for the legal profession.” But O’Connor’s statement was just an assertion. It was not an exercise of reasoning, much less a statement of fact.
Several years after that case, Justice O’Connor admitted in an essay in a book on the subject of racial preferences that the Court actually did not have a sound basis for declaring that there are educational benefits from a racially diverse student body. She wrote that the Court should “reassess” its position. (In this essay, I discussed her remarkable but overlooked admission regarding the Grutter case.)
Where did O’Connor and the other pro-preference justices get the idea that diversity leads to educational benefits? They came from the University of Michigan’s brief, as well and those of other pro-preference amicus briefs in the case. The University of Michigan, trying to defend its admission practices, argued that it had research to prove that more diversity means better learning on campus, but that research was shown to be worthless by Thomas Wood and Malcolm Sherman in this lengthy study for the National Association of Scholars. In 2001 Wood and Sherman concluded that the educational benefits rationale for college admission preferences must be rejected.
No Proof Any Students Benefit
To this day, there is no proof that mixing in a quota (or, as diversity advocates put it, “critical mass”) of students from certain racial groups does anything to improve the level of education for any students, much less for all of them. There is, however, some strong evidence that by mismatching weaker students with more demanding schools, we harm educational outcomes.
In their book Mismatch, Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr. showed that many students admitted for “diversity” reasons to prestige schools would have been better off had they enrolled in a school where they were not at a competitive disadvantage with academically stronger students. Similarly, when economists Peter Arcidiacono, Esteban Aucejo, and V. Joseph Hotz studied the outcomes of University of California students who had been admitted with lower academic qualifications to increase diversity, they concluded that “lesser-prepared minority students at top-ranked campuses would have higher science graduation rates had they attended lower-ranked campuses.”
So, there is evidence that “diversity” for its own sake has negative educational outcomes rather than the positive ones imagined by Justice O’Connor and many others. Strangely, however, we never hear college and university leaders express any doubt that racial preferences are beneficial, and Weisman ignores that possibility. It seems this is an issue where merely having good intentions is all that matters.
But even if racial preferences don’t lead to better education, maybe they lead to other good institutional outcomes. That’s where Weisman goes next in his essay, arguing that administrators could be acting to raise their school’s prestige level when they adopt admission preferences. “Harvard,” he writes, “would have no incentive to depart from an admissions standard that reinforces its reputation as one of the world’s foremost educational institutions.” Do the leaders of prestige universities actually know that using racial preferences makes them more illustrious? Perhaps, but Weisman adduces no evidence to support that claim.
A Baseball Analogy
Instead, he relies on a baseball analogy to carry his point. He observes that no one objects if a team recruits a variety of players with different skills rather than just looking for those with the highest batting averages. It isn’t objectionable discrimination, he writes, when a team goes after a player who is an excellent defensive infielder but is just an average hitter. Since baseball teams take a “holistic” view of players, why shouldn’t universities like Harvard do the same thing and select students in a similar fashion? Baseball teams want to win World Series and Harvard wants to win (or at least remain near the top) in the prestige rankings. That’s perfectly reasonable, Weisman contends.
The problem here is that the analogy is poor. Of course, baseball teams want players with different skills to optimize their chances of winning, but baseball players are proven to have those skills. Scouts and managers can look at statistics and see players in action. When it comes to students who have applied to college, however, very few of them have proven much about themselves. Some of them appear to have stronger academic abilities than others based on their high school records and standardized test scores, but none of them has yet done anything that would allow colleges to say, “this student is apt to be a future Nobel Prize winner,” or “this student is a future political leader.”
Moreover, the reputations of prestigious universities like Harvard depend far more on their faculty and financial resources than on what their graduates later accomplish in life. Choosing to admit a few more black and Latino students while rejecting a few more white and Asian students won’t affect Harvard’s reputation.
When college officials turn away applicants with very strong academic backgrounds in favor of others with weaker backgrounds it isn’t because the latter are thought more likely to do great things and enhance the school’s reputation. It’s simply because they “represent” one of the racial and ethnic groups those officials want more of. That explanation fits two facts about this matter.
One fact is that colleges doing racial preferences have almost the same percentages of students in the preferred groups year after year. Filling a quota appears to be the overriding concern rather than choosing those students who will do the most to keep up the school’s reputation. Colleges that employ racial preferences set aside places in their incoming classes for applicants from certain minority groups. Seeking to fill quotas from groups hardly seems consistent with a strategy of selecting students for their probable future success.
The second fact is that when voters have decided against racial preferences in admissions (as, for example, Michigan did in 2006), college leaders have gone ballistic in opposition. After the victory of the anti-preference ballot initiative in Michigan, the president of the University of Michigan, Mary Sue Coleman, issued a defiant statement in which she declared that diversity was the university’s most important job. Michigan still could and did choose students based on all their individual characteristics except race, but taking away race sent seismic tremors through the state’s higher education establishment.
That suggests that college leaders have an emotional attachment to racial preferences. If you doubt that, consider the way Duke economics professor Peter Arcidiacono was treated by then-president Richard Brodhead when he published research critical of Duke’s admission preferences. Rather than saying, “Those are findings that we must now consider,” Brodhead publicly upbraided the professor for releasing research that caused some people on campus to get upset. (Professor KC Johnson writes about that episode here.) Similarly, UCLA professor Richard Sander has suffered ad hominem attacks for having called the benefits of racial preferences for law students into question.
In short, it seems that racial preferences are an article of faith among the “progressives” who almost uniformly hold top positions in our higher education system. There is no dissent among them that more racial diversity is an important goal and outside criticism is ignored if not rebuked.
No Oversight, No Benchmarks to Meet
The late Henry Manne argued that all management is really for-profit management, but that in nominally non-profit enterprises like universities, those in charge take their profits in the form of pleasant perquisites and personal indulgences. The faculty enjoys low teaching loads and general freedom from oversight, while administrators enjoy spending on large staffs and lavish conferences. The latter can also make decisions that they believe will enhance their status and upward mobility even at the expense of the intellectual integrity of their institutions.
To a considerable extent, college leaders get to run things as they like without noticeable adverse consequences. One of the things they like is the feeling that they’re doing their part to right some of the world’s wrongs and to most of them, statistical imbalances are evidence of some underlying social wrong. If too few black and Latino students qualify for top schools (including elite high schools), then it’s up to them to adjust admission standards so that gap disappears. Failing to demand preferences for groups regarded as victims of historical oppression would be considered a lack of commitment to fairness, something that no good “progressive” wants.
That, I submit, is the reason why nearly all college leaders insist that they need more diversity. Admission preferences for certain minority groups is a personal indulgence they can’t resist.
Finally, Weisman points out that many colleges and universities have preferences for athletes and “legacies” (that is, applicants with family ties to the school). Rather than providing a defense for racial preferences, however, those preferences have been attacked as undermining the academic integrity of higher education. Lowering your admission standards in search of a better football team or in hopes of reeling in more cash for the endowment diverts a school from its educational mission. Two (or three) wrongs don’t make a right.
But why does this matter?
It matters first because the U.S. has made a legal commitment to non-discriminatory educational policy. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids federal funds from going to schools that discriminate because of race. If Harvard or any other college or university wants to choose students so that their race is a key if not deciding factor, it can legally do so by declining federal student aid money. Otherwise, it is or at least should be bound to race-neutral admissions.
Second, it matters because the obsession over race has had horrible consequences for American education. Rather than bringing people together, as Justice O’Connor thought, it has been divisive. On many campuses, we now have racially segregated living quarters, racially-themed student centers, and separate graduation ceremonies. The perceived need to cater to minority students led colleges to adopt a host of courses where group identity and grievances give anger a platform on campus. Academic integrity has been undermined by the mania for diversity.
America would be much better off if its education leaders had stuck to education and resisted the temptation to play at social engineering.