Study: Ending affirmative action would devastate most minority college enrollment

Princeton University researchers have found that ignoring race in elite college admissions would result in sharp declines in the numbers of African Americans and Hispanics accepted with little gain for white students.

In a study published in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly, authors Thomas Espenshade and Chang Chung examined the controversial notion that eliminating affirmative action would lead to the admission of more white students to college and found it to be false. The assertion that qualified white students are being displaced by less qualified minority students was a prime plaintiff argument in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court cases against the University of Michigan (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger).

"We're trying to put these admission preferences in context so people understand that lots of students, including those with SAT scores above 1500, are getting a boost," said Espenshade, the professor of sociology who co-authored "The Opportunity Cost of Admission Preferences at Elite Universities" with Chung, a senior technical staff member in the Office of Population Research. "The most important conclusion is the negative impact on African American and Hispanic students if affirmative action practices were eliminated."

According to the study, without affirmative action the acceptance rate for African-American candidates likely would fall nearly two-thirds, from 33.7 percent to 12.2 percent, while the acceptance rate for Hispanic applicants likely would be cut in half, from 26.8 percent to 12.9 percent. While these declines are dramatic, the authors note that the long-term impact could be worse.

"If admitting such small numbers of qualified African-American and Hispanic students reduced applications and the yield from minority candidates in subsequent years, the effect of eliminating affirmative action at elite universities on the racial and ethnic composition of enrolled students would be magnified beyond the results presented here," the report says.

The authors also cite other studies and the actual experience of the University of California system where affirmative action has been eliminated: "The impacts are striking. Compared to the fall of 1996, the number of underrepresented minority students admitted to the University of California-Berkeley Boalt Hall Law School for the fall of 1997 dropped 66 percent from 162 to 55.... African-American applicants were particularly affected as their admission numbers declined by 81 percent from 75 to 14, but acceptances of Hispanics also fell by 50 percent. None of the 14 admitted African-American students chose to enroll. Of the 55 minority students admitted, only seven enrolled in the fall of 1997, a falloff that had the effect of reducing the underrepresented minority share in the first year class to 5 percent in 1997 compared with 26 percent in 1994."

Removing consideration of race would have little effect on white students, the report concludes, as their acceptance rate would rise by merely 0.5 percentage points. Espenshade noted that when one group loses ground, another has to gain -- in this case it would be Asian applicants. Asian students would fill nearly four out of every five places in the admitted class not taken by African-American and Hispanic students, with an acceptance rate rising from nearly 18 percent to more than 23 percent. Typically, many more Asian students apply to elite schools than other underrepresented minorities. The study also found that although athletes and legacy applicants are predominantly white, their numbers are so small that their admissions do little to displace minority applicants.

The authors based their work on models previously developed in a 2004 study where they looked at more than 124,000 elite university applicants' SAT scores, race, sex, citizenship, athletic ability and legacy in combination with their admission decision. This more recent study honed in on more than 45,000 applicants. Both studies are part of the multidimensional National Study of College Experience, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Espenshade is professor of sociology and faculty associate at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. His research and teaching interests include higher education in the United States, the racial dimension of college admissions and campus life, intergroup relations on college campuses, social demography, and contemporary immigration to the United States. Espenshade joined the faculty in 1988 after receiving his doctorate in economics from Princeton in 1972.