Affirmative Action and Highly Qualified Minority Students

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Fears that ending affirmative action would cause a diversion of highly qualified minority students away from the elite colleges and universities appear to be unfounded.

Some supporters of affirmative action have argued that eliminating racial preferences would harm highly qualified minority students by discouraging them from applying to elite colleges and universities. This concern rests on the assumption that minority students are uncomfortable attending schools without significant minority populations, and that not having a large enough minority population at elite schools discourages minority applicants.

In Would the Elimination of Affirmative Action Affect Highly Qualified Minority Applicants? (NBER Working Paper No. 10366), NBER Research Associates David Card and Alan Krueger report that the college application decisions of highly qualified minority students are "not very sensitive to changes in the racial and ethnic composition of the student bodies at selective public colleges and universities" and that fears "that ending affirmative action would cause a diversion of highly qualified minority students away from the elite colleges and universities appear to be unfounded."

Comparing data from all SAT-takers in California and Texas in the 1994 to 2001 admission cohorts with administrative data from the eight University of California campuses covering 1995 to 2001, Card and Krueger determine that the probability that a student asks the College Board to send his SAT score to a particular campus is a good proxy for the probability that a student will apply to the same institution. They conclude that students' decisions to send SAT scores to a particular campus can substitute for actual applications data.

Public colleges and universities in California and Texas offered preferential admission to minority applicants until the late 1990s. In 1995, minority applicants to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin, and Texas A&M enjoyed higher average acceptance rates than whites and Asians despite substantially lower grade point averages and group SAT scores that were more than 100 points lower on average.

After preferences were banned in California in 1998, admission rates among black freshmen applicants to Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego fell from 45-55 percent in 1995-7 to 20-25 percent in 1998-2001. Between 1997 and 1998, the fraction of blacks and Hispanics in Berkeley's freshman class fell from 22 percent to 12 percent. System-wide, changes in minority admission were far more muted. In California, acceptance rates fell by about 7 percent for blacks and 4 percent for Hispanics.

Banning affirmative action admissions had similar effects at Texas schools. At Texas A&M the decline began in 1996. Black admission rates fell by an estimated 30 percent and Hispanic admission rates fell by an estimated 15 percent.

Although there are differences in the behavior of white and black application patterns in California and Texas, differences that may reflect the fact that elite Texas schools are located in small cities while elite California schools are in large urban areas, the end of affirmative action produced few changes in before-and-after score-sending behavior. There was a small, short-lived dip of less than 5 percent in the relative probability of sending scores to selective schools in both states from 1997-9, but the probabilities recovered after 1999. There was no change in behavior for highly qualified students, with the exception of high-GPA Hispanic students in California. They were significantly more likely to send their scores to the most selective University of California schools after affirmative action was abolished.

-- Linda Gorman