Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Reevaluating the Effectiveness of Affirmative Action

By Girisha AroraPublished January 1, 2017

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At a time when affirmative action is being cited as overly aggressive, a New York Times analysis calls into question the effectiveness of the decades old policy.
Affirmative action was instituted as a means to encourage racial integration and to improve the representation of minorities in universities and at the workplace. However, a recent New York Times analysis has found that even 35 years after instituting such measures, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented than they were in 1980 at top colleges and universities. At a time when there is continuous debate regarding whether affirmative action policies are too harsh, this data makes us pause and reevaluate if affirmative action is even the right method to ensure minority representation.

For some people, preferential treatment on the basis of geography and legacy status is considered acceptable, but race-based admissions is considered a form of "reverse discrimination" - where whites are left out due to the importance given to "fulfilling the quotas." In August , it was announced that Trump's Justice Department is going to begin investigating universities that factor race into their decision making process and possibly even sue them for "intentional race based discrimination."  Supporters of affirmative action vehemently disagree with such propositions, as they believe that the success of these policies is a necessity in a racially-divided society. Randall Kennedy in a recent book goes one step further and calls it society's "moral responsibility" to support these measures to even out the playing field.

Despite the ever-present debate on its need in society, affirmative action has been a part of university and work culture for nearly four decades - but even then minority representation has not improved, and in some cases even declined. The reason that many believe this occurs is because of "mismatch". This can be seen through the policies used by universities for admissions. An example quoted in a recent article in The Atlantic, was the University of Texas' admission policies. The typical black student gaining admission into Texas placed around the 59th percentile on the SAT, while a typical white student ranked closer to the 89th percentile. It is important to clarify and acknowledge that standardized tests are not the best measures of excellence and should not be the only factor that is taken into account. However, it does illustrate the possible reason why many blacks feel as if they are lagging behind in class - which in turn unfortunately perpetuates the stereotype that black students do poorly. One thing leads to another, and black students prefer choosing a mid-level university where they can perform better than a better university where they feel they may be pulled back. In sum, students of color are underrepresented at top colleges .

Mismatch is reported to have caused black students to abandon science and engineering fields twice as likely than white students have, and almost half of them place in the bottom 20 percent of their classes. Universities however, are not willing to accept the "mismatch" problem as they believe it is a threat to racial peace on campus and hence they suppress data and often even ostracize faculty who bring it up. In some ways, disregarding the mismatch problem is even more dangerous than its occurrence and a necessary topic that needs to be tackled, if we want the effectiveness of affirmative action to improve.