The Magazine

Affirmative Disaster

A Duke study documents the harm racial preferences in college admissions can do to the intended beneficiaries.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A growing body of empirical evidence is undermining the claim that racial preferences in college benefit their recipients. Students who are admitted to schools for which they are inadequately prepared in fact learn less than they would in a student body that matches their own academic level. As an ongoing controversy at Duke University demonstrates, however, such pesky details may have no effect on the longevity of the preference regime. 

Photo of a statue of Washington Duke

Washington Duke

Duke admits black students with SAT scores on average over one standard deviation below those of whites and Asians (blacks’ combined math and verbal SATs are 1275; whites’ are 1416, and Asians’, 1457). Not surprisingly, blacks’ grades in their first semester are significantly lower than those of other ethnic groups, but by senior year, the difference between black and white students’ grades has shrunk almost 50 percent. This convergence in GPA might seem to validate preferential admissions by suggesting that Duke identifies minority students with untapped academic potential who will narrow the gap with their white and Asian peers over their college careers. 

Now three Duke researchers have demonstrated that such catching-up is illusory. Blacks improve their GPAs because they switch disproportionately out of more demanding science and economics majors into the humanities and soft social sciences, which grade much more liberally and require less work. If black students stayed in the sciences at the same rate as whites, there would be no convergence in GPAs. And even after their exodus from the sciences, blacks don’t improve their class standing in their four years of college. 

This study, by economics professor Peter Arcidiacono, sociology professor Ken Spenner, and economics graduate student Esteban Aucejo, has major implications for the nationwide effort to increase the number of minority scientists. The federal government alone has spent billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money trying to boost minority participation in science; racial preferences play a key role in almost all college science initiatives. The Arcidiacono paper suggests that admitting aspiring minority scientists to schools where they are less prepared than their peers is counterproductive.

The most surprising finding of the study is that, of incoming students who reported a major, more than 76 percent of black male freshmen at Duke intended to major in the hard sciences or economics, higher even than the percentage of white male freshmen who anticipated such majors. But more than half of those would-be black science majors switched track in the course of their studies, while less than 8 percent of white males did, so that by senior year, only 35 percent of black males graduated with a science or economics degree, while more than 63 percent of white males did. Had those minority students who gave up their science aspirations taken Introductory Chemistry among students with similar levels of academic preparation, they would more likely have continued with their original course of study, as the unmatched record of historically black colleges in graduating science majors suggests. Instead, finding themselves in classrooms pitched at a more advanced level of math or science than they have yet mastered, preference recipients may conclude that they are not cut out for quantitative fields—or, equally likely, that the classroom “climate” is racist—whereas the problem may just be that they have not yet laid the foundations for more advanced work. 

Attrition from a hard science major was wholly accounted for in the paper’s statistical models by a freshman’s level of academic qualifications; race was irrelevant. While science majors had SATs that were 50 points higher than students in the humanities in general, students who had started out in science and then switched had SATs that were 70 points lower than those of science majors. Any student in a class that assumes knowledge of advanced calculus is likely to drop out if he has not yet mastered basic calculus.

The Duke paper, whose methodology is watertight, deserves widespread attention among educators and policymakers. An amicus brief seeking Supreme Court review of racial preferences at the University of Texas (in a case called Fisher v. Texas) has brought the paper to the Court’s attention. Predictably, however, a number of black students, alumni, and professors have portrayed the research as a personal assault. Members of Duke’s Black Student Alliance held a silent vigil outside the school’s Martin Luther King Day celebration in protest of the paper and handed out fliers titled “Duke: A Hostile Environment for Its Black Students?” In an email to the state NAACP, the BSA called the paper “hurtful and alienating” and accused its authors of lacking “a genuine concern for proactively furthering the well-being of the black community.” 

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers