The World Without Affirmative Action

In the next few months the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on a significant affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, in which two white women are suing Texas’s flagship university, arguing that their rejection for admission constitutes a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

If the court decides in Fisher’s favor, affirmative action will likely be over at public colleges in the United States, which about 80 percent of American undergraduates attend.

With this case in mind, a researcher at the University of Michigan, Liliana Garces, attempted to figure out what might happen in American graduate schools. Garces looked at the racial breakdown at public colleges in Texas, California, Washington, and Florida, which already have affirmative action bans in place. According to her paper, published by The Civil Rights Project:

Bans on affirmative action led to an estimated drop of 1.2 percentage points in the proportion of students of color enrolled across all graduate degree programs. Before any of the bans were implemented in each state, the average percentage of enrolled graduate students who were students of color was about 9.9 percent. The estimated 1.2 percentage point drop thus represents a decline to about 8.7 percent.

This is a significant, though not exactly astounding, difference.

This is hardly the difference between a wonderful world of great opportunities for ethnic minorities and the abyss, at least in part because it doesn’t look like affirmative action is really greatly increasing the presence of minorities on graduate school campuses anyway.

About 22 percent of Americans are ethnic minorities currently, more than double the figure for ethnic minorities in public graduate schools when they had affirmative action in place.

Garces emphasizes that the drop was greater in engineering and the social sciences than in fields like humanities and education.

There are, of course, other ways than racial preferences to facilitate social mobility of the American underprivileged through academic admissions. One way might be to give preferences based on low socioeconomic class.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer