Monday, 7 December 2009

The Bell Curve: Affirmative Action in Higher Education

Continuing a mini-series on USAA.

From Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1996):

Affirmative action began to be woven into American employment and educational practices in the 1960s as universities and employers intensified their recruiting of blacks - initially on their own, then in compliance with a widening body of court decisions and laws. By the early 1970s, affirmative action had been expanded beyond blacks to include women, Latinos, and the disabled. It also became more aggressive. Targets, guidelines, and de facto quotas evolved as universities and employers discovered that the equality of outcome that people sought was not to he had from traditional recruiting methods. As it became more aggressive, affirmative action became correspondingly more controversial.


[…] Affirmative action is part of this book because it has been based on the explicit assumption that ethnic groups do not differ in the abilities that contribute to success in school and the workplace-or, at any rate, there are no differences that cannot be made up with a few remedial courses or a few months on the job. Much of this book has been given over to the many ways in which that assumption is wrong. The implications have to be discussed, and that is the purpose of this chapter and the next, augmented by an appendix on the evolution of affirmative action regulations (Appendix 7). Together, these materials constitute a longer discussion than we devote to any other policy issue, for two reasons. First, we are making a case that contradicts a received wisdom embedded in an intellectual consensus, federal legislation, and Supreme Court jurisprudence. If the task is to be attempted at all, it must be done thoroughly. Second, we believe affirmative action to be one of the most far-reaching domestic issues of our time-not measured in its immediate effects, but in its deep and pervasive impact on America's understanding of what is just and unjust, how a pluralist society should be organized, and what America is supposed to stand for. […]


People may agree that they want affirmative action in higher education until they say more precisely what they mean by it. Then they may disagree. But whatever the argument, it would help to have some data about how colleges and universities have translated the universal desire for greater fairness in university education into affirmative action programs. Our first goal is to inform the debate with such data.

At first glance, ours may seem an odd objective, for certain kinds of data about affirmative action are abundant. Universities and businesses keep detailed numbers about the numbers of minorities who apply and are accepted. But data about the core mechanism of affirmative action -


the magnitudes of the values assigned to group membership - are not part of the public debate.

This ignorance about practice was revealed in 1991 by a law student at Georgetown University, Timothy Maguire, who had been hired to file student records. He surreptitiously compiled the entrance statistics for a sample of applicants to Georgetown’s law school and then published the results of his research in the law school’s student newspaper. He revealed that the mean on the Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) differed by a large margin for accepted black and white students.

In the storm that ensued, the dean of the law school ordered copies of the newspaper to be confiscated and black student groups called for Maguire’s expulsion. Hardly anyone would acknowledge that Maguire’s numbers even raised a legitimate issue. ‘Incomplete and distorted information about minority qualifications for admission into the Law Center renew the long-standing and intellectually dishonest myth that they are less qualified than their white counterparts to compete in school, perform on the job or receive a promotion,’ wrote the authors of an op-ed article in the Washington Post, and that seemed to be the prevailing attitude. The numerical magnitude of the edge given to members of certain groups - the value assigned to the state of being black, Latino, female, or physically disabled-was not considered relevant.

Such edges are inherent in the process. In as neutral and precise language as we can devise: Perfectly practiced, the traditional American ideal of equal opportunity means using exclusively individual measures, applied uniformly, to choose some people over others. Perfectly practiced, affirmative action means assigning a premium, an edge, to group membership in addition to the individual measures before making a final assessment that chooses some people over others.

The size of the premium assigned to group membership - an ethnic premium when it is applied to affirmative action for favored ethnic groups - is important in trying to judge whether affirmative action in principle is working. This knowledge should be useful not only (or even primarily) for deciding whether one is ‘for’ or ‘against’ affirmative action in the abstract. It should be especially useful for the proponents of affirmative action. Given that one is in favor of affirmative action, how may it be practiced in a way that conforms with one’s overall notions of what is fair and appropriate? If one opposes affirmative action in principle, how much is it deforming behavior in practice?


[…] We first examine evidence on the magnitude of the ethnic premium from individual colleges and universities, then from professional schools. We then recast the NLSY data in terms of the rationale underlying affirmative action. We conclude that the size of the premium is unreasonably large, producing differences in academic talent across campus ethnic groups so gaping that they are in no one’s best interest. We further argue that the current practice is out of keeping with the rationale for affirmative action.

The Magnitude of the Edge in Undergraduate Schools

We have obtained SAT data on classes entering twenty-six of the nation’s top colleges and universities. In 1975, most of the nation’s elite private colleges and universities formed the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), which, among other things, compiles and shares information on the students at member institutions, including their SAT scores. We have obtained these data for the classes entering in 1991 and 1992. They include sixteen out of the twenty top-rated private universities and five of the top ten private colleges, as ranked in U.S. News and World Report for 1993. The figure below shows the difference in the sum of the average Verbal and Math SAT scores between whites and two minorities, blacks and Asians, for the classes in the COFHE schools that matriculated in the fall of 1992. In addition, the figure includes data on the University of Virginia and the University of California at Berkeley in 1988.

The difference between black and white scores was less than 100 points at only one school, Harvard. It exceeded 200 points at nine schools, reaching its highest at Berkeley (288 points). Overall, the median difference between the white mean and the black mean was 180 SAT points, or, conservatively estimated, about 1.3 standard deviations. This would put the average black at about the 10th percentile of white students. In all but four schools, Asians were within 6 points of the white mean or above it, with a median SAT 30 points above the local white average, working out to about .2 standard deviations. Or in other words, the average Asian was at about the 60th percentile of the white distribution. This combination means that blacks and Asians have even less overlap than blacks and whites at most schools, with the


median black at the 5th to 7th percentile of the distribution of Asian students. Data for Latinos (not shown in the figure) put them between blacks and whites, with a median of 129 points below the white mean, or about .9 standard deviation below the white mean in the typical case. The average Latino is therefore at about the 20th percentile of the distribution of white students.


The ordering of black, Latino, white, and Asian is similar to that reported for IQ and SAT scores in Chapter 13. In other words, elite universities are race norming (though it is doubtful they think of it that way), carrying with them into their student populations the ethnic differences in cognitive distributions observed in the population at large.

We would prefer to have a sample of non-elite state universities represented in our data, but such numbers are closely guarded. The
only data we have obtained come from the University of California at Davis, for 1979. The black-white difference then was 271 SAT points, and the Latino-white difference 211 points. The Asian mean at Davis was, atypically, 54 points below the white mean, the largest such difference we have found.

The data from the University of Virginia and the two University of California campuses suggest that the gap between minorities and whites among freshmen at state universities may be larger than at the elite private schools. It is only a suggestion, given the limited data, but it also


makes sense: Places like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and MIT get first pick.

Because the raw numbers of high scoring black and Latino students are so small, the top schools dig deep into the thin layer of minority students at the top of the SAT distribution. In 1993, for example, only 129 blacks and 234 Latinos nationwide had SAT Verbal scores in the 700s - and these represented all-time highs - compared to 7,114 whites. Even highly rated state institutions such as the University of California’s Berkeley campus and the University of Virginia lose many of these most talented minority students to the elite private schools while continuing to get many of the top scorers in the larger white pool. Such are the mathematics of competition for a scarce good, borne out by the limited university data available, which show the three state universities with three of the four largest black-white gaps in SATS.

The differences do not seem to have changed a great deal between the 1970s and the 1990s. The best longitudinal data from Berkeley illustrate a perverse effect of a strong affirmative action policy: The more aggressive the recruitment of minorities, the higher the average ability of the non-minority students. From 1978 to 1988, the combined SATs of blacks at Berkeley rose by 101 points, a major improvement in the academic quality of black students at Berkeley. But the competition for the allotment of white slots became ever more intense. The result was that


the SAT scores for Berkeley whites rose too, and the gap between black and white students at Berkeley did not close but widened. Meanwhile, the unprotected minority, Asians, also were competing for a restricted allotment of slots. Their mean scores rose more than any other group’s, and by a large margin, going from far below the white mean to slightly above it. In just eleven years, the Asian mean at Berkeley soared by 189 points.

The summary statement about affirmative action in undergraduate institutions is that being either a black or a Latino is worth a great deal in the admissions process at every undergraduate school for which we have data. Even the smallest known black-white difference (95 points at Harvard) represents close to a standard deviation for Harvard undergraduates. The gap in most colleges is so large that the black and white student bodies have little overlap. The situation is less extreme for Latino students but still severe. Asian students appear to suffer a penalty for being Asian, albeit a small one on the average. We have seen no data that would dispute this picture. If such data exist, perhaps this presentation will encourage their publication.

The Magnitude of the Edge in Graduate Schools

LAW SCHOOLS. Timothy Maguire’s findings about the Georgetown Law Center were consistent with more systematic evidence. The table below shows the national Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) results for 1992 for registered first-year law students. For blacks, overlap with the white incoming law students was small; only 7 percent had scores above the white mean. The overall Latino-white difference was 1 standard deviation. It was markedly larger for Puerto Ricans (-2.0 SDs) than for


Mexican-Americans (-.8) or ‘other’ Latinos (-.7). The overall Asian mean corresponds to the 38th percentile on the white distribution, evidence of modest affirmative action on behalf of Asian applicants in the law schools.

The table above is for the national population of first-year law students. To assess the effects of affirmative action, it would be preferable to have data from individual law schools. At upper reaches of the LSAT distribution, from which the elite law schools drew most of their students, there was even less overlap between whites and blacks than in the SAT pool. More than 1,100 registered white law students had scores of 170 or higher on a scale going from 120 to 180, compared to three blacks. At ten highly selective law schools for which individual data were reported in a 1977 report by the Law School Admissions Council, the smallest black-white difference in LSAT scores (expressed in terms of the white distribution) at any of the ten schools was 2.4 standard deviations, the largest was 3.6 standard deviations, and the average difference for the ten schools was 2.9 standard deviations, meaning that the average black was in the bottom 1 percent of the white distribution.

MEDICAL SCHOOLS. Medical students repeat the familiar pattern, as shown for the national population of matriculated first-year students in 1992 in the table below. In the national pool, the black-white gap is


about the same as in the law schools, with the average entering black medical student at the 8th to 10th percentile of the white distribution, depending on which subtest of the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) we consider. The gap between whites and ‘other underrepresented minorities’ is a bit smaller than the Latino-white gap in law school, with the average student in this group standing at the 20th to 23d percentile of the white distribution. The ‘other’ category - mostly Asian - had higher scores than whites on the physical sciences and (fractionally) on biological sciences, standing, respectively, at the 56th and 52d percentiles of the white distribution, while scoring lower in verbal reasoning (32d percentile).

As in the case of law schools, the black medical student pool is even more severely depleted at the top end of the range than it is in undergraduate schools, with important implications for the gap in the elite schools. In none of the three subtests did more than 19 blacks score in the 12 to 15 range (on a scale that goes from 1 to 15), compared to 1,146, 1,469, and 853 whites (for the biological sciences, physical sciences, and verbal reasoning tests, respectively). In practical terms, several of the elite schools can fill their entire class with white students in the top range, but only the one or two most elite schools can hope to have a significant number of black students without producing extremely large black-white differences, comparable to those reported for elite law schools.

Other studies have published data on medical school admissions, expressed in terms of the odds of being accepted to medical school for different minorities. All tell similar stories to ours.

GRADUATE SCHOOLS IN THE ARTS AND SCIENCES. Applicants to graduate schools other than law and medicine typically take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), comprising verbal, quantitative, and analytical subtests. The reports of GRE scores do not distinguish between persons who take the test and persons who actually register in a graduate school, so they are less useful than the LSAT or MCAT in trying to understand the scope and magnitude of affirmative action in those schools. Nonetheless, the results, in the table below, look familiar. The magnitudes of the ethnic differences on the individual subtests of the GRE (in 1987-1988, the most recent year for which we were given data) were somewhat smaller than for the professional schools, putting blacks


at the 10th to 12th percentile of the white distribution, depending on the subtest. Asians were (as usual) higher than whites on the
quantitative and lower on the verbal. Adding up all three subtest means, Asians were a few points higher than whites.

The summary statement is that the ethnic gaps in objective test scores observed in undergraduate institutions are matched, and perhaps exceeded, in graduate and professional schools. If data become available from individual schools, this question can be answered definitively.


1 comment:

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