Affirmative Action
July 7th, 2022 2 Minute Read Press Release

New Issue Brief: Does Affirmative Action Harm Its Beneficiaries?

A review of the evidence on “mismatch” effects at competitive universities finds mixed results

New York, NY — In its coming term, thanks to lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the Supreme Court will evaluate the legality of affirmative action in college admissions. But beyond their legal and ethical ramifications, such policies present an empirical question: Do students admitted to competitive schools through affirmative-action policies benefit? Or, instead, do they suffer from being “mismatched” with their peers—falling behind, receiving low grades, becoming frustrated, and sometimes switching to easier majors or dropping out? In a new Manhattan Institute issue brief, fellow Robert VerBruggen surveys some of the most influential research on this question and suggests a practical way to address the issue, no matter what the Supreme Court does: Simply give students better information about how they’re likely to fare at the colleges they’re admitted to. In discussing the contentious academic literature, VerBruggen offers a commonsense way of thinking about mismatch. This starts with recognizing that many selective colleges do, in fact, use racial preferences—sometimes quite large ones—and that students who receive these preferences often fall behind their peers on “within-school” measures such as class rank. He continues, however, by recognizing that other, more consequential mismatch effects will vary from situation to situation. A severely mismatched law-school student might struggle to keep up with his classmates and end up failing his first bar attempt, for example, while a mismatched undergraduate might work hard to keep up and receive a diploma from a higher-ranked school than he’d otherwise have been able to attend. VerBruggen argues that liberals should not dismiss the potential harms of placing a student among peers with far higher entering qualifications, while conservatives should not assume that preferences always harm their beneficiaries. But both should support a simple idea: When students are admitted to a degree program, give them good information about how students with their level of academic preparation tend to fare if they attend. By tracking and releasing such data, schools and policymakers can facilitate better decision-making—allowing students to factor in the advantages and disadvantages of attending a school with better-prepared peers.

Click here to view the full issue brief.


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