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Can Campus Diversity Survive Without Affirmative Action?

One study suggests it's possible but not feasible.
Students walk through campus at the University of Virginia on December 6th, 2014, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Students walk through campus at the University of Virginia on December 6th, 2014, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When it comes to campus life, the research is clear: Racial diversity matters. A meta-analysis of two-dozen studies exploring the impact of diversity among students found a positive correlation between diversity and student engagement in civic life. This relationship was especially strengthened by "interpersonal interactions with racially diverse peers." And in a 2015 amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court, the American Psychological Association, acknowledging this kind of benefit, noted how "underrepresentation of minority groups pose significant obstacles to effective education of both minority and non-minority groups."

So it raised quite a few eyebrows when, in early July, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice issued a joint announcement withdrawing federal guidance documents (issued by the Obama administration) endorsing the use of race as a factor in college admissions. The statement reads: "The departments have reviewed the documents and have concluded that they advocate policy preferences and positions beyond the requirements of the Constitution."

The announcement is hardly out of step with the times—in fact, it comes amid a groundswell of public opinion against affirmative action. Over the last 20 years, California, Florida, Texas, Nebraska, Washington, and Michigan have banned the use of race as a factor in admissions to public universities. There are many reasons why people oppose affirmative action based on race alone, but the main argument against it seems to hinge on it being a violation of a fundamental meritocratic ethos. In any case, polls have shown most Americans are against it.

If diversity's benefits are tangible, and if Americans largely remain opposed to race-based affirmative action on anti-meritocratic grounds, is there another way to foster ethnic and racial diversity on the college campus?

Many critics of race-based affirmative action turn to Texas' "Ten Percent Plan" as a solution. The policy, which offers acceptance to the top decile of every high school's graduating class to the state's two flagship schools (the University of Texas–Austin and Texas A&M), went into effect in 1998, after Hopwood v. Texas banned the use of race in admissions. By one measure, the plan has worked. Before Hopwood, when race-based affirmative action was in place, the University of Texas–Austin was 4 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic; after the initiation of the Texas Ten Percent Plan, a typical freshman class had a profile that was 4.5 percent black and 16.9 percent Hispanic.

But a study by two Princeton University sociologists discovered a glitch in this good news: The only reason Hispanic numbers went up as high as they did was because the number of Hispanics graduating from high school between 1994 and 2004 rose 78 percent. Provided that the percentage of high school diplomas granted to Hispanics rose from 29 percent to 35 percent during that time, the authors of the study concluded that "Hispanics are worse off relative to whites than they were under affirmative action." Further, consider that the Texas Ten Percent Plan depends on continuing pre-existing residential and school segregation, and this solution seems deeply compromised.

Still, perhaps all hope is not lost when it comes to achieving a racially diverse campus without relying on race-based affirmative action. A report published last spring explored the impact of socioeconomic–status-based affirmative action by analyzing data from 40 institutions that included over 10,000 college-age students. It found that providing preference to students with lower socioeconomic status than most applicants does not match the level of racial diversity as would be achieved through race-based affirmative action. However, when socioeconomic-based affirmative action is combined with race-based recruitment—that is, reaching out to more racial minorities to apply to the campus (and then practicing race-blind admissions)—could be as effective as race-based affirmative action in achieving racial diversity on campus.

A number of possible problems could interfere with this solution. Some studies have shown the elimination of race-based affirmative action to have a "chilling effect" on minorities interested in applying to and attending elite schools. One report, for example, found that "the affirmative action ban in California shifted underrepresented minority students from more selective campuses to less selective ones." (Another study found no such evidence.)

Perhaps more significantly, outreach to minority applicants, as well as accepting students from lower socioeconomic background, is expensive. Colleges and universities may not be willing to assume these costs, a possibility confirmed by the Stanford University study, whose lead author conceded, "the associated cost of providing financial aid to these more financially needy students might render such policies infeasible in practice." It is likely for this reason that, the Princeton sociologists who challenged the Texas Ten Percent Plan concluded, "[race-based] affirmative action is the most efficient policy to diversify college campuses."