Use facts, not courts, to fix affirmative action

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to announce its decision in the biggest affirmative-action case in years: Fisher v. University of Texas. Before it does, let's consider two important findings about the real world of higher education.

Fisher v. University of Texas
The Supreme Court is set to decide in the biggest affirmative-action case in years.
Photo by Scott* on Flickr

The most recent one is a Brookings Institution study published this month showing that several long-standing federal programs intended to prepare low-income students for college don’t work. These programs send funds to colleges and universities, which run summer schools, counseling programs, and other initiatives to help disadvantaged high schoolers get ready for college. Despite the billion-dollar-a-year investment, they make no apparent difference.

The other finding was in the blockbuster research by Stanford's Caroline Hoxby and Harvard's Christopher Avery released in December. The study identified tens of thousands of qualified low-income students, 30 percent of them racial minorities, who aren’t even applying to elite colleges. If they did, the study concluded, they would almost surely be admitted, receive a lot of financial aid, and have the potential to perform well.

The takeaway from both studies is that higher education is spectacularly bad at “affirmative action,” as originally envisioned: reaching out to disadvantaged students and preparing them to attend good schools. Yet it's also clear that the original vision, if properly carried out, would lead to the diverse campuses the administrators say they want.

Based on this research, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can continue to defend the use of affirmative action to lower standards for students from minority groups. The rationale for this policy rests on a false premise, the presumption of scarcity: that there aren’t enough minority students who meet traditional qualifications.

It's true that, on average, minority students leave high school performing at far lower levels their white counterparts. But selective colleges are dealing not with average students but a tiny slice of the best and brightest. And here, according to Hoxby and Avery, there’s much less scarcity than anyone presumed—an untapped pool of talented low-income students, many of them African American or Latino, waiting to be recruited.

A follow-up study by Hoxby and the University of Virginia's Sarah Turner showed that a little information can go a long way. They sent packets of college information to a random selection of low-income high achievers. These students were 80 percent more likely to gain admission to a selective college than their peers who didn’t get the packets.

The mailings cost just $6 apiece. Shipping one to every high-achieving, low-income student in, say, Texas would cost less than $100,000 a year. The University of Texas isn’t the richest college in the country, but it has an endowment of more than $7 billion, according to published reports. So rather than ask whether UT has a “compelling interest” in the educational value of student diversity, as some Supreme Court justices are wont to do in the Fisher case, they should ask: Why can’t the University of Texas spend .001 percent of its endowment each year to achieve the diversity it seeks without resorting to the double standard of admitting students who aren't prepared?

A version of this piece originally appeared in Bloomberg View.

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