Panel Paper: Is There a "Workable" Race-Neutral Alternative to Affirmative Action in College Admissions?

Friday, November 7, 2014 : 8:50 AM
San Juan (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Mark Long, University of Washington
The 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case clarified when and how it is legally permissible for universities to use an applicant’s race-ethnicity in its admissions decisions.  The court concluded that such use is permissible when “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.” 

All alternative admission systems that attempt to boost minority enrollment by giving weight to other non-race applicant characteristics that are correlated with race (e.g., systems that give advantage to lower socioeconomic status applicants for this purpose) are in essence attempts to create “proxies” for minority status.  In this paper, I investigate what would happen if a university directly gave weight to the applicant’s predicted likelihood of being an underrepresented minority applicant (rather than placing arbitrary weights on correlated indicators).  I show that while such a system can be used to restore minority’s share of admitted students, doing so can result in a class that has modestly lower predicted likelihood of collegiate academic success.  Furthermore, utilizing such a proxy-based admission system is inefficient; in the simulation, I find that it required the university to place over four times as much weight on predicted minority status as the weight it previously placed directly on actual minority status, resulting in non-minority applicants being admitted who would not have been otherwise admitted.  In the simulation in this paper, the admitted students’ predicted GPAs are found to fall from 2.95 to 2.92, and predicted likelihood of graduating from 74.7% to 73.7%.  Whether such alternative admissions systems are “workable” is in the eye of the beholder, and would likely vary from university-to-university and court-to-court.

If a university attempted to utilize a proxy-based admission system, they would encounter a variety of dilemmas.  First, to reduce the inefficiencies discussed above, they may be tempted to seek out additional information that is correlated with minority status.  In a report I was commissioned to produce for the Educational Testing Service (Long, Forthcoming), I show how the collection of additional information could improve the prediction of minority status.  I note that “(w)hile the universities may want to go down this path, they may be thwarted by the monetary cost of purchasing such information, the political challenge that would be likely to follow from such privacy invasion, and the distaste it would engender in applicants” (p. 8).  Furthermore, a naked and direct use of racial proxies is sure to invite legal challenge as such a policy would not be deemed “race neutral” as discussed in the introduction.  On the other hand, the use of less direct proxy systems (such as arbitrary weighting of correlated indicators) is likely to produce even more inefficiency, distorting the set of admitted students, and further lowering academic quality.

Full Paper: