Academics Affirm Affirmative Action

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

A quartet of studies has arrived just in time for the Supreme Court’s consideration of an affirmative action case. “Four studies that are awaiting publication and were presented here last week at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education offer reasons for optimism,” Dan Berrett reported in an article datelined Las Vegas that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on November 30, 2012. “They find that students scores on standardized tests of critical thinking increase when they encounter diversity, either when they come into contact with students from backgrounds that are different from their own or when they take diversity courses.”

“And white students seem to benefit the most.” So did the academics rush to the podium with research the ink wasn’t dry on because it was so groundbreaking? “The studies arrive as the U. S. Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of a race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin,” Berrett reports.  “During past court battles, advocates and foes of affirmative-action programs have cited research to back up their claims, but the data often relied on student surveys.”

“The challenge we’ve had up to this point is we haven’t had enough empirical evidence,” Luis Ponjuan, an associate professor of higher education at Texas A&M said at the conference. “The work we’re doing today is going to inform the paradigm shift in higher education.” From Berrett’s article, though, this work is nearly as vague as the quote from Ponjuan. “Only one practice, interactions with diversity, had a statistically significant positive impact by the fourth year for all students,” Berrett claims. “It did so on their critical thinking skills, on their enjoyment of reading and writing, and on their intellectual curiosity.”

“When adjusting for previous academic achievement, the results were even more pronounced.”  In stark contrast to these findings, opponents of race-based admissions policies entered information in the Supreme Court record that showed, fairly dramatically, that such programs hurt minorities the most.

For example, one amicus brief noted of historically black colleges and universities that “With only 20 % of total black enrollment, these schools were producing 40% of the black students graduating with natural science degrees, according to the National Science Foundation. These same students were frequently going on to earn Ph.D.s from non-HBCUs. The National  Science Foundation reported, for example, that 36% of the blacks who earned an engineering doctorate between 1986 and 1988 received their undergraduate degree from an HBCU.”

Conversely, this same brief noted that “More recently, Duke University economists Peter Arcidiacono and Esteban Aucejo and Duke sociologist Ken Spenner found evidence supporting the mismatch thesis when researching the major choices of undergraduates enrolling at Duke in fall 2001 and 2002.”

For instance, “they found black undergraduates were much less likely to persist with an initial ambition of majoring in engineering, the natural sciences or economics than white students.”  Specifically, “54% of black males switched out of these majors, whereas only 6% of white males did.”


Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

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