How to keep leadership white: Ban affirmative action
The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to ban any consideration of race in college admissions. It is well established that eliminating consideration of race will lead to a substantial reduction in the number of underrepresented minority students at elite colleges. But the consequences to society of less student diversity at top colleges extend far beyond the impact on individual students or universities. Banning affirmative action would have clear and devastating consequences on our country’s progress toward racial equity by exacerbating the current underrepresentation of diverse leaders and professionals.
Why would progress toward racial equity be undermined by an affirmative action ban? A ban on affirmative action would not affect the majority of U.S. colleges, because most colleges admit all qualified applicants. Affirmative action plays an admissions role only at a small number of elite schools, such as Ivy League private schools like Harvard and flagship public universities like the University of North Carolina. If race could not be considered in admissions, the share of the Harvard student population who are African American would fall from 14 percent to 6 percent and the Hispanic share would fall from 14 percent to 9 percent. Numerous research studies document similar projected declines in minority representation if consideration of race is not allowed. Colleges are adamant that all admitted students are qualified and that race is considered as only a small component in a holistic review process.
The problem is that it is precisely these elite schools that serve as the pipeline to leadership positions in the United States. I am an economist who studies higher education and labor market outcomes. My analysis of data on nearly a half million college graduates shows that graduates of elite colleges are over 10 times more likely to earn an advanced degree from an elite university in a field such as law, medicine, business or a Ph.D. compared to graduates of schools attended by most students. These JD, MD, MBA, and Ph.D. graduates of elite universities become our nation’s lawyers, judges, legislators, doctors, business leaders and professors.
Some critics argue that affirmative action creates a “mismatch” in which minority students are admitted to schools that are too challenging for them, causing them to be less successful later in life. My research shows that is not true. Critically, it is the status of the undergraduate institution — not race — that is related to advanced degree attainment. In fact, 6 percent of white graduates and 7 percent of Black and Hispanic graduates of elite private universities earn MDs, compared to about 1 percent of the white, Black and Hispanic graduates of broad access colleges. The pattern is similar for JD, MBA, and Ph.D. degrees and shows that graduates of elite schools are far more likely to earn advanced degrees, but there is little difference by race among graduates of schools of similar status. Among those students who earn a professional degree, there is no difference by race in the likelihood of being licensed in the profession. The playing field is leveled for those graduates from schools of similar status regardless of students’ race or whether affirmative action played any role in admission.
Black and Hispanic professionals are already underrepresented in elite fields. A common refrain among employers seeking to increase the diversity of their workforce is that their efforts are thwarted by a narrow pipeline of qualified minority candidates. A ban on affirmative action at the undergraduate level would only worsen minority underrepresentation in advanced degree programs, leading to even less diversity among those in leadership and professional positions.
Under longstanding Supreme Court precedent, universities are permitted to consider race as one among many factors in admissions decisions to serve their compelling interest in pursuing the educational benefits of a diverse student body. Although this diversity rationale is often described in terms of benefits to schools and students, society as a whole benefits from educating diverse students to meet the unmet demand for diverse leadership and professionals.
To give one example, minority physicians are more likely to serve minority and low-income communities and Black patients have better health outcomes when treated by doctors of their same race. By ignoring the additional benefits of diverse leadership and professionals that follow from a diverse student body at elite undergraduate institutions, the full scope of benefits accruing from consideration of race in higher education admissions are undervalued.
Racial disparities in representation diminish the legitimacy and reach of our institutions and leave communities of color with limited power to advance their own interests, a vacuum of leadership in corporate America and in the judicial system, and a short supply of professionals to serve their communities with essential legal and medical services.
Continued progress toward racial equity, rather than its regression, is in the hands of the Supreme Court. A ruling that bans affirmative action practices in higher education admissions will close the door to possibilities for groups that have too long been excluded from leadership positions in America fostering a more diverse pipeline of future societal leaders requires that elite universities retain their ability to meet their compelling interest of enrolling a diverse student body. Full consideration of the societal benefits that flow from affirmative action implies fewer — not more — restrictions on consideration of race in admissions. The Supreme Court should draw on its long-established precedent to assure that the path to leadership is visibly open to individuals of all races.
Joni Hersch is an economist who works in the areas of employment discrimination and empirical law and economics. She is the Cornelius Vanderbilt chair professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University and co-director of the Ph.D. Program in Law and Economics. She is the author of the analysis “Affirmative Action and the Leadership Pipeline.”