AffirmativeAction in Higher Education - Living Together - The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray (1996)

Part IV. Living Together

Chapter 19. AffirmativeAction in Higher Education

Affirmative action on the campus needs, at last, to be discussed as it is actually practiced, not as the rhetoric portrays it. Our own efforts to assemble data on a secretive process lead us to conclude that affirmative action as it is practiced cannot survive public scrutiny.

The edge given to minority applicants to college and graduate school is not a nod in their favor in the case of a close call but an extremely large advantage that puts black and Latino candidates in a separate admissions competition. On elite campuses, the average black freshman is in the region of the 10th to 15th percentile of the distribution of cognitive ability among white freshman. Nationwide, the gap seems to be at least that large, perhaps larger. The gap does not diminish in graduate school. If anything, it may be larger.

In the world of college admissions, Asians are a conspicuously unprotected minority. At the elite schools, they suffer a modest penalty, with the average Asian freshman being at about the 60th percentile of the white cognitive ability distribution. Our data from state universities are too sparse to draw conclusions. In all the available cases, the difference between white and Asian distributions is small (either plus or minus) compared to the large differences separating blacks and Latinos from whites.

The edge given to minority candidates could be more easily defended if the competition were between disadvantaged minority youths and privileged white youths. But nearly as large a cognitive difference separates disadvantaged black freshmen from disadvantaged white freshmen. Still more difficult to defend, blacks from affluent socioeconomic backgrounds are given a substantial edge over disadvantaged whites.

There is no question that affirmative action has “worked,” in the sense that it has put more blacks and Latinos on college campuses than would otherwise have been there. But this success must be measured against costs. When students look around them, they see that blacks and Latinos constitute small proportions of the student population but high proportions of the students doing poorly in school. The psychological consequences of this disparity may be part of the explanation for the increasing racial animosity and the high black dropout rates that have troubled American campuses. In society at large, a college degree does not have the same meaning for a minority graduate and a white one, with consequences that reverberate in the workplace and continue throughout life.

It is time to return to the original intentions of affirmative action: to cast a wider net, to give preference to members of disadvantaged groups, whatever their skin color, when qualifications are similar. Such a change would accord more closely with the logic underlying affirmative action, with the needs of today’s students of all ethnic groups, and with progress toward a healthy multiracial society.

We come to national policies that require people to treat groups differently under the law. 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 quotas1 evolved as universities and employers discovered that the equality of outcome that people sought was not to be had from traditional recruiting methods. As it became more aggressive, affirmative action became correspondingly more controversial.

Affirmative action creates antagonism partly because it affects the distribution of scarce goods—university places, scholarships, job offers, and promotions—that people prize. But it is also problematic for reasons that reach into deeply held beliefs—most fundamentally, beliefs about the ideal of equal opportunity versus the reality of the historical experience of certain groups, preeminently blacks, in this country. As the rhetoric heats up, the arguments about affirmative action become blurred. Affirmative action raises different questions in different contexts. What, people ask, are the proper goals of affirmative action, the proper methods? Which groups are to be benefited? What are the costs of affirmative action, and who should bear them? Is affirmative action a temporary expedient to correct past wrongs, or must the American ideal of individualism be permanently modified for the collective needs of members of certain groups?

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.

In this chapter, the topic is the college campus. In Chapter 20, we discuss affirmative action in the workplace. In both chapters, we provide data as available on Asians and Latinos, but the analysis centers on blacks, as has the debate over affirmative action.


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.2 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, an official at the law school sent a letter to Maguire’s fellow students condemning his article. 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,3 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?

It is not obvious precisely where questions of fact trail into questions of philosophy, but we will attempt to stay on the factual side of the line at first. A bit of philosophical speculation is reserved for the end of the chapter. 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 1992.4 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 1993.5 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 1988.6

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.7 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.8

At selective schools, the median black edge was 180 SAT points, while Asians faced a median penalty of 30 points


Sources: Consortium on Financing Higher Education 1992; Sarich 1990 (for Berkeley); L. Feinberg, “Black freshman enrollment rises 46% at U-Va,” Washington Post, Dec. 26, 1988, p. C1 (for University of Virginia).

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 nonelite state universities represented in our data, but such numbers are closely guarded.9 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.10 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.

Are Asians the Victims of Reverse Discrimination?

Complaints that Asian-American applicants were being subjected to reverse discrimination led eventually to a full-scale inquiry in the late 1980s by the federal Office for Civil Rights. Harvard, which was examined closely, was able to show that the SAT penalty of their Asian admitted students was accounted for by the smaller number of alumni children and athletes in the pool, and eventually got a clean bill of health, but the controversy remains at many other institutions.11 Brown responded to a report from its Asian-American Students Association by admitting the existence of “an extremely serious situation” and called for “immediate remedial measures.”12 At Berkeley, Stanford, Princeton, and other elite schools, special committees have investigated the issue, issuing reports that tend to exonerate their colleges of actual reverse discrimination but acknowledge shortcomings in keeping up with the revolution in Asian applicants.13

The underlying source of tension remains: Asians are an ethnic minority, many of whom, or whose parents, came to the United States under circumstances of extreme deprivation. Many suffered from racial prejudice. Whether or not they are treated differently from whites by elite universities, Asians are indisputably treated differently from every other nonwhite ethnic minority. University officials everywhere have been reluctant to confront this issue forthrightly.

The Law of Supply and Demand in Minority Recruiting

Affirmative action has produced intense competition for the top black and Latino students. In the spring of 1992, Harvard reported that its “yield” of black students abruptly declined from the year before. The Harvard report suggested that the decline was due at least in part to the large financial incentives being offered to blacks by other colleges. One such black student, it was reported, received a straight grant of $85,000, plus $10,000 in annual travel budgets, from one of Harvard’s competitors in minority recruiting.14 An article in the New York Times provided more instances of a practice that increasingly includes the kind of enticements—full scholarships even for families with ample financial resources, free trips to visit the campus, recruiting visits, and promotional activities—that used to be reserved for star high school athletes. “As a result, a number of college officials privately accuse each other of ‘stealing’ black students,” the Times reporter noted.15

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 nonminority 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.16 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.

Affirmative Action Weights: The Law School Aptitude Test

Ethnic Group

Difference from White Mean, in SDs

Source: Barnes and Carr 1993.







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.17

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).

Affirmative Action Weights: The Medical College Admissions Test

Difference from the White Mean, in SDs

Source: Division of Educational Research and Assessment 1993, pp. 59-63.

aOther under-represented minorities” consists of American Indian/Alaskan natives, Mexican-American/Chicanos, and mainland Puerto Ricans.

bAsian/Pacific, commonwealth Puerto Ricans, and Latinos not otherwise classified.













“Other under-represented minorities”a








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).18 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.19

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 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.

Applicants to Graduate Schools

Difference from the White Mean, in SDs

Source: Wah and Robinson, 1990, Table 2.2

Ethnic Group
















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.


The data we have just summarized should restrain casual assertions that the differences among the blacks, Latinos, Asians, and whites who go to college are not worth worrying about. The differences we have described are large by any definition. But do these data give us any leverage on the question of whether affirmative action as it is currently practiced is good or bad? For an answer, we begin by inquiring into the logic of affirmative action and then examine whether the patterns of racial and socioeconomic differences observed in the NLSY make sense in terms of that logic.

The Logic of College Admissions

On the campus, affirmative action is not at odds with the normal admissions process. College admission is not, has never been, nor is there reason to think it should be, a competition based purely on academic merit. The nonacademic ends can be legitimate and important. No admissions policy can serve all good ends equally, because the ends are often inconsistent with one another. The admissions process is a juggling act, and affirmative action fits squarely in a long tradition. Our understanding of the legitimate role of affirmative action, which owes much to Robert Klitgaard’s discussion of the same topic, will be categorized under the headings of “institutional benefit,” “social utility,” and “just deserts.”20

INSTITUTIONAL BENEFIT. One of the goals of any admissions process is to serve the institution’s own interests. Why do many colleges give some preference to students from faraway states? To children of alumni?21 To all-state linebackers or concert pianists? Some of the answers involve the good of the institution as a whole. A student from Montana can add diversity to a college in Connecticut; a good football team can strengthen a college’s sense of community and perhaps encourage alumni generosity. Black and Latino students admitted under affirmative action can enrich a campus by adding to its diversity.

The institution also has interests beyond daily campus life. Admitting the children of its faculty and of its most generous alumni may add little that is distinctive to the student body, for example, but their parents make a big difference to the health and quality of the institution, and keeping them happy is important. Beyond the college gates is society at large. Universities cannot disregard what the broader community thinks of them, and so they must be sensitive to the currents of their time. The political pressure (let alone the legal requirement) for some level of affirmative action in the universities has been irresistible.

These institutional interests are valid and significant but unsatisfactory as the entire rationale for affirmative action, for there are too many ways in which affirmative action has self-evident drawbacks. If it is admissible to augment the presence of some racial or ethnic minorities solely because they serve the interests of the university, is it not also appropriate to limit the presence of minorities for the same reason? It is a relevant question, for, while limits for Jews may be largely behind us, limits for Asians may be upon us. Furthermore, one cannot avoid the problem by arguing that it is appropriate to have floors for certain groups but inappropriate to have ceilings for others. Making more room for one group must reduce the room for others. Instinctively, one wishes for morally stronger justifications for affirmative action than institutional interests. Two are available.

SOCIAL UTILITY. Consider the case of the crown prince of a large kingdom who also happens to be a young man of pedestrian intelligence and indifferent character. He applies to a competitive American university—Princeton, we shall say. Should Princeton admit him in preference to the many brighter and more virtuous students whose applications flood the admissions office? The social utility criterion may say yes, for this young man is eventually going to influence the lives of the millions of people in his own country. He may be drawn into issues that could affect international peace and prosperity. Princeton makes a contribution to human happiness if it can help the crown prince develop into a thoughtful and humane adult.

The same kind of calculation bedevils professional schools in choosing among men and women. For example, if it is empirically true that women are more likely than men to leave a profession, there is an authentic question of resources to be considered when selecting who shall be trained in that profession. Given that the good called a medical education is severely limited, howr important is the ethical nudge in the direction of using scarce resources efficiently? Conversely, how important is it to get women into these professions so that, in the future, it will be easier for more of them to pursue such careers?

Suppose now that it is again Princeton choosing between two candidates, one black and one white. Both are from affluent professional families, so socioeconomic disadvantage is not an issue. The white has higher test scores and (just to make the case still plainer) more glowing references than the black candidate. Both plan to become attorneys. In some sense, the white candidate “deserves” admission more. But who is going to provide more social “value-added”? Adding one more white attorney to the ranks of prominent attorneys, or adding one more black one? Princeton could reasonably choose the black candidate on grounds that only by expanding the size of the next generation of minority lawyers, physicians, businessmen, and professors can society attain racial equality at the higher socioeconomic and professional levels. Only when equality is reached at those higher levels will minority youths routinely aspire to such careers. And, the argument continues, only when the aspirations for success and their fulfillment are thus equalized will we reach the kind of real racial equality that will eventually show up in test scores as well as everything else.

For now, let us ignore whether affirmative action will in fact have these good effects and concentrate instead on the logic of the argument. The same logic can justify not only choosing a member of a minority over a white, it can justify choosing a member of one minority over another. For example, a case may be made for systematically favoring blacks over Asians on the social utility criterion—based not on calculations that African slaves faced greater oppression in the past than the Chinese brought to build the railroads but on the proposition that the opportunities for a degree may be more valuably distributed to African Americans instead of Asian Americans, given the contemporary state of affairs in American society. Indeed, early in this century, when colleges were discriminating against Jews, the reasons given, when they were given at all, were a mixture of institutional self-interest and social utility.22

Once again, however, the rationale for affirmative action is not fully satisfactory. Looking back to the time when the numbers of Jews or women on a campus were strictly limited, most people feel uncomfortable with the rationales, however dispassionately accurate they might have seemed at the time. They are uncomfortable partly because of the injustice, which brings us to the final criterion that should be part of the admissions process.

JUST DESERTS. Beyond institutional benefit and social utility, college admissions may recognize what might be called “just deserts.” As the director of admissions to Columbia College expressed it, One has to take into account how well one has done with the environment [an applicant has] been handed.”23 The applicant who overcame poverty, cultural disadvantages, an unsettled home life, a prolonged illness, or a chronic disability to do as well as he did in high school will get a tip from most admissions committees, even if he is not doing as well academically as the applicants usually accepted. This tip for the disadvantaged does not seem unfair.

This is the intuitive rationale of affirmative action for blacks, who were demonstrably the victims of legal oppression, enforced by the state, from the founding of the colonies through the middle of this century, and of pervasive social discrimination that still persists to some degree. To give blacks an edge because they are black accords with this sense of justice. At an elaborated level, there is a widespread impression that the underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos (and perhaps other groups, such as American Indians) in elite schools is an effect of racial or ethnic injustice, properly corrected by affirmative action in university admissions. If it were not for the racism in our society, the groups would be proportionally represented, some believe. A still more elaborated version of the argument is that the very approach to learning, reasoning, and argumentation in universities is itself racist, so that the predictors of university performance, such as SAT or IQ scores, are therefore racist too. Affirmative action redresses the built-in racism in the admissions process and the curriculum.24

Two Common But Invalid Arguments Regarding Affirmative Action

We have reviewed the rationales for affirmative action without even mentioning the two most commonly made points: first, that the real difference in academic ability between minority and white candidates is much smaller than the difference as measured by test scores, and, second, that gradations in ability do not count for much after a certain threshold of ability has been met.

This first point is based on allegations of cultural bias in the tests, covered in Chapter 13 and Appendix 5. As readers will by now be aware, much research argues strongly against: it. The second point, often expressed by university officials with the words “everyone we admit can do the work,” is true in the limited sense that students with comparatively low levels of ability can get passing grades. It is not correct in any broader sense. Higher scores predict better academic performance throughout the range of scores. There is no reason to think that a threshold exists above which differences in tested ability have little effect on the quality of the student body, student performance, and the nature of student interactions.25

So there are three coherent rationales for concluding that it is just, as well as institutionally and socially useful, to admit minority students from specific minority groups even if they are somewhat less qualified than the other candidates who would be admitted. The rationales are not even controversial. Few of the opponents of affirmative action are prepared to argue that universities should ignore any of these criteria altogether in making admissions decisions. With that issue behind us, the question becomes whether affirmative action as it is being practiced is doing what its advocates want it to do. Does it serve worthwhile purposes for the institutions themselves, for students, for society at large, or for a commonly shared sense of justice?

A Scheme for Comparing Rationales with Practice

We will set the problem first with hypothetical applicants to college, divided into four categories, then we will insert the actual cognitive ability scores of the college students in those categories. The four categories are represented in the 2 × 2 table below, where “low” and “high” refer to the full range of cultural and economic advantages and disadvantages.

A Framework for Thinking about the Magnitude of Preference that Should Be Given to a Minority Candidate





(3) Scarsdale Appalachia

(4) Scarsdale Scarsdale



(2) South Bronx Appalachia

(1) South Bronx Scarsdale

“Scarsdale” denotes any applicant from an upscale family. “South Bronx” denotes a disadvantaged minority youth, and “Appalachia” denotes a disadvantaged white youth. Each cell in the table corresponds to a pair of applicants—a white and a minority—from either high or low socioeconomic and cultural circumstances. Starting at the lower right and going clockwise around the table, the categories are: (1) a minority applicant from a disadvantaged background and a white from a privileged background; (2) a minority and a white applicant, both from disadvantaged backgrounds; (3) a minority applicant from a privileged background and a white from a disadvantaged background, and (4) a minority and a white applicant, both from privileged backgrounds.

Imagine you are on the admissions committee and choosing between two candidates. Assume that all the nonacademic qualifications besides race are fully specified by high and low status for this pair of candidates and that the IQ is the only measure of academic ability being considered. (In other words, let us disregard grades, extracurricular activities, athletics, alumni parents, and other factors.) You are trying to decide whether to admit the minority applicant or the white applicant. How big a difference in IQ are you willing to accept in each cell and still pick the minority candidate over the white candidate? Let us consider each cell in turn, starting with the situation in which the minority might be expected to get the largest premium to the one in which the premium arguably should go to the white.

CELL 1: THE SOUTH BRONX MINORITY VERSUS THE SCARSDALE WHITE. The largest weight obviously belongs in the cell in which the minority student is disadvantaged and the white student is advantaged. Considerations of just deserts argue that it is not fair to equate the test scores of the youngster who has gotten the finest education money and status can buy with the test scores of the youngster who has struggled through poor schools and a terrible neighborhood. Considerations of social utility argue that it is desirable to have more minority students getting good college educations, so that society may alter the effects of past discrimination and provide a basis for an eventually color-blind society in the future. We assign ++ to this cell to indicate a large preference for the minority candidate. A relatively large deficit in the minority applicant’s test score may properly be overlooked.

CELL 4: THE SCARSDALE MINORITY VERSUS THE SCARSDALE WHITE. If a college is choosing between two students in the high-high cell, both from Scarsdale with college-educated parents and family incomes in six figures, the social utility criteria say that there is a rationale for picking the minority youth even if his test scores are somewhat lower. But doing so would violate just deserts when the white student has higher test scores and is in every other way equal to the minority student. Which criterion should win out? There is no way to say for sure. Our own view is that, as personally hurtful as this injustice may be to the individual white person involved, it is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. The privileged white youth, with strong credentials and parents who can pay for college, will get into a good college someplace. We therefore assign a + to this cell to signify some ethnic premium to the minority candidate but less than in the first instance.

CELL 2: THE SOUTH BRONX MINORITY VERSUS THE APPALACHIAN WHITE. Now imagine a minority student from the South Bronx and a white student from an impoverished Appalachian community. The families of both students are at the wrong end of the scale of advantage. Which one should get the nod in a close call? The white has just as much or nearly as much “social utility” going for him as the black does. American society will benefit from educating youngsters from disadvantaged white backgrounds, too. Both have a claim based on just deserts. America likes to think that people can work their way up from the bottom, and Appalachia is the bottom no less than the South Bronx. Perhaps there is some residual premium associated with being black, based on the supposition that just being black puts one at a greater disadvantage than a white in the “all else equal” case—a more persuasive point when applied to blacks from the South Bronx than when applied to blacks from Scarsdale. We assign ≈0 to this cell, indicating that the appropriate ethnic premium for the minority student is not much greater than zero (other things being equal) and is certainly smaller than in the Scarsdale-Scarsdale case.

CELL 3: THE SCARSDALE MINORITY VERSUS THE APPALACHIAN WHITE. Now we are comparing the privileged minority student with the disadvantaged white student. Where one comes out on the scale of social utility depends on how one values the competing goals to be served. It seems hard to justify a social utility value that nets out in favor of the minority youth, however. (Yes, there is social utility in adding a minority to the ranks of successful attorneys, even if he comes from an affluent background, but there is also social utility in vindicating the American dream for poor whites and in adding a representative of disadvantaged white America to the ranks of successful attorneys.) Something close to zero seems to be the appropriate expected value on the social utility measure, and the white youth should get a plus on the just deserts argument. If the choice is between a poor white youngster from an awful environment and an affluent minority youngster who has gone to fine schools, and if the poor white has somewhat lower test scores than the affluent minority, it is appropriate to give the poor white at least a modest premium. We thus enter—into this cell, to reflect the fact the white youth gets the nod in a close call.

The filled-in table is shown below. We may argue about how large an ethnic premium, expressed in IQ, should be tolerated in each cell, but the ranking of the premiums seems hard to dispute. With this in mind, we are ready to examine how affirmative action in the NLSY sample squared with this view of the appropriate discrepancies.26

A Rationale for Thinking About the Preference Given to a Minority Candidate



High SES

High SES

(3) -




(2) ≈0

(1) ++

Rationale vs. Practice

To fill in the table with data, we divided NLSY students who went to four-year institutions into those in the upper and lower halves of socioeconomic background, using the socioeconomic status index described in Appendix 2. (We also conducted the analysis with more extreme definitions of privilege and disadvantage.)27 We then selected the subsample of whites and blacks who had attended the same schools, and computed the mean IQ for the upper and lower halves of socioeconomic status for these matched pairs, statistically controlling for institution. Sample sizes of these matched pairs ranged from 72 for the cell in the top left to 504 for the cell in the lower right. The filled-in table below shows the difference between the white and black IQ scores in standard deviations.28

Let us try to put these numbers in terms of the choices facing an admissions officer. He has two folders on the desk, representing the lower left-hand cell of the table. The two applicants differ in cognitive ability by 1.17 standard deviations, and both are socioeconomically disadvantaged. More specifically (incorporating information about the means not shown in the table), one student is almost exactly average in cognitive ability for such college students, at the 49th percentile of the distribution; the other is at the 12th percentile. Is it appropriate to treat the choice as a toss-up if the student at the 12th percentile happens to be black?29 The typical admissions officer has, in effect, been treating two such applicants as a toss-up.

The Actual Magnitude of the Preference Given to Black Candidates


Below average

Above average

Above average

+.58 (-)

+.91 (+)


Below average

+1.17 (≈0)

+1.25 (++)

We put the question in that way to try to encourage thinking about a subject that is not much thought about. How big an edge is appropriate? In a properly run system of affirmative action, should the average disadvantaged black and average disadvantaged white who got to a given college differ by so large a margin?

Consider the next pair of folders, with two applicants from privileged backgrounds (the upper right-hand cell). One is at the 57th centile of college students, the other at the 23d centile, corresponding to almost a standard deviation difference. Is it reasonable to choose each with equal likelihood if the one at the 23d centile is black, as the typical admissions officer now does?

How might one justify the upper left cell, representing the privileged black versus the disadvantaged white, where the edge given to the black candidate should be no greater than zero under any plausible rationale for affirmative action (or so we argue), and probably should be less than zero? A disadvantaged white youth with cognitive ability at the 36th centile of college youths now has the same chance of being admitted as a privileged black youth at the 17th centile.

Finally, consider the lower right cell, the one that most closely fits the image of affirmative action, in which a privileged white is competing with a disadvantaged black. The logic of affirmative action implies a substantial difference in the qualifications of two youths fitting this description who have an equal chance of being admitted. Is the difference actually observed—between a white at the 57th percentile of college students and one at the 12th percentile—a reasonable one? In IQ terms, this is a difference of almost nineteen points.

We do not suppose that admissions officers have these folders side by side as they make their decisions. In fact, given the pressures on admissions committees, the determining factor for admission is often the sheer numbers of minority applicants. If the percentage of minorities in the incoming freshman class goes up, that is considered good. If the percentage goes down, that is considered bad. To make the numbers come out right, the admissions committee feels pressed to dig deeper into the pool of available applicants if necessary. They do not want to admit unqualified minority candidates, nor do they want to prefer advantaged minority applicants over disadvantaged whites. But these questions arise, if they arise at all, only after the more pressing matter of minority representation is attended to. The goal is to have “enough” blacks and other minorities in the incoming class. Meanwhile, white applicants are judged in competition with other white candidates, using the many criteria that have always been applied.

The main purpose of the exercise we have just conducted is to suggest that admissions committees should be permitted to behave a little more like our imaginary one than they are at present, given the pressures from higher levels in the university. If university officials think that these data are not adequate for the purposes we have used them, or if they think that we have misrepresented the affirmative action process, there is an easy remedy. Universities across the country have in their admissions files all the data needed for definitive analyses of the relationship of ethnicity, socioeconomic disadvantage, and academic ability—test data, grade data, parental background data in profusion—for students who were accepted and students who were rejected, students who enrolled and students who did not. At many schools, the data are already in computer files, ready for analysis. They may readily be made available to scholars without compromising confidentiality. Our proposition is that affirmative action as it is currently practiced in America’s universities has lost touch with any reasonable understanding of the logic and purposes of affirmative action. It is easy to put this proposition to the test.


The success of affirmative action in the university is indisputable, in the sense that a consciously designed public policy, backed by the enthusiastic cooperation of universities, drastically increased the number of minority students who attend and graduate from college. The magnitude of the success during the first flush of affirmative action is apparent in the figure below, which shows the result for black enrollments.30

When aggressive affirmative action began, black college enrollment surged for a decade


Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census 1975, 1993, various editions.

In 1967, black enrollment of 20-24-year-olds suddenly shot up, and continued to rise steeply through the mid-1970s. White enrollment experienced no comparable surge during that period. The most plausible cause of the surge is the aggressive affirmative action that began in the mid-1960s. On the other hand, this figure previews a problem we will discuss at more length in the next chapter: Whatever initial impetus was provided by affirmative action, it soon lost momentum. Black enrollment in the early 1990s was higher than the trendline from 1950 to 1966 would have predicted, but some sort of evening-out process seems to have set in as well. Black enrollment dropped during the late 1970s, recovered modestly during the early and mid-1980s, then increased sharply at the end of the decade. The level of black college enrollment as of the early 1990s is higher than at any other time in history.

Furthermore, the enrollment of blacks rose not only to equality but to more than equality with whites of comparable socioeconomic background and intelligence. As we showed in Chapter 14, the proportion of blacks obtaining college degrees substantially exceeds that of whites, after controlling for IQ. As we have just finished documenting at length, the opportunity for college is also more open to blacks than to whites with equivalent test scores.

Given the goals of affirmative action, it is appropriate to see this increase as a success. We assume as well (we have found no hard data) that affirmative action has also increased the sense among minority youths that college is an option for them and increased the number of college-educated minority role models for minority youths. Still other benefits claimed for affirmative action—helping jump-start advances in the next generation of minority groups or improving race relations—are yet in the realm of speculation.


The costs of affirmative action have been measured in different ways.31 Relatively little of this commentary has involved the costs to whites. There are such costs—some number of white students are denied places at universities they could otherwise have won, because of affirmative action.32 But most of the concern about affirmative action comes down to this question: How much harm is done to minority self-esteem, to white perceptions of minorities, and ultimately to ethnic relations by a system that puts academically less able minority students side by side with students who are more able? There are no hard-and-fast answers, but at least we can discuss the magnitude of the problem from the student’s eye view and from the vantage point of the general population.

The Student’s-Eye View of Minority and White Cognitive Ability

Getting to know students from different backgrounds is a proper part of a college education. But given the differences in the cognitive abilities of the students in different groups, diversity has other consequences. To the extent that the groups have different scores, both perceptions and grades will track with them. Consider once again the probability of reaching college for students at different levels of cognitive ability. Comparatively small proportions of students with low intelligence get to college, no matter what their race. But the student on the ground does not see the entire population of students with IQs in the bottom quartile (let us say). Rather, the only people in the bottom quartile whom he sees are the ones who reached college.

To see just how different these perspectives can be, let us take first the extreme “above the battle” view of racial tensions that might be caused by affirmative action. The argument goes as follows:

Yes, there is a racial discrepancy in test scores, though one should interpret those differences cautiously no matter what the evidence on cultural bias may be. But in reality we are talking about small numbers and small differences. In the NLSY data, blacks in the bottom quartile of cognitive ability who reach four-year colleges amount to less than 4 percent of the youths on those campuses, while whites amount to almost 2 percent. Can anyone seriously think that this trivial difference can be a major problem?

The answer seems as if it is self-evidently no. But now we switch to the view from ground level: from the vantage point of the college student who attends classes, listens to fellow students talk in class, observes what is going on in the library and the labs, and gossips with friends about other students. Let us imagine three observations of the kind that students commonly make in the normal course of campus life: the racial mix of the entire student population, the students who stand out because they seem to be especially out of place in a university, and the students who stand out because they seem to be especially smart.

We will operationalize this student’s campus view by looking at the NLSY subjects who attended a four-year university (excluding historically black schools), focusing on those with IQs that put them in the top and bottom 10 percent of such students. The figure below displays what our hypothetical student sees. It shows students by IQ, but a figure that contained the same breakdown by college grades (unavailable in the NLSY) would show roughly the same pattern. Backed up by the many studies that have examined the relationship between cognitive test scores (especially SAT scores) and performance in college: Cognitive test scores generally overpredict college grade point average (GPA) for both blacks and Latinos, in comparison to whites.33 If anything, a figure showing students with the top and bottom 10 percent of GPAs would show an even greater ethnic discrepancy in college performancebetween whites and blacks or Latinos than the discrepancy in IQs indicates.34 Similarly, the data from individual colleges that opened the chapter suggest that this aggregate national picture would look no better, and might well look worse, in a school-by-school portrait.

The student’s eye view of cognitive ability


Such large differences in performance are obvious to all, including other students. The problem, and a major cost of affirmative action, is that while blacks in the NLSY constituted only 12 percent of those who went to college, they were 52 percent of the students in the bottom 10 percent in cognitive ability and an almost invisibly small proportion of the top 10 percent. The statistical difference that was trivial in the view from above the battle has become a large racial discrepancy at ground level. Meanwhile the imbalance between Latinos’ representation in the campus population and in the bottom 10 percent of intelligence is less obvious, while the “other” category (a combination of Asians, Pacific ethnic groups, and American Indians) is proportionately represented in the top and bottom (as a conglomerate—if we split them up, most of those in the top are Asian). We suggest that the figure presented above is important in trying to understand some of the most difficult racial problems besetting America’s universities.

RACIAL ANIMOSITY. Racial clashes on campuses began to surface in the early 1980s and apparently have been growing since then, with the great bulk of the difficulties between whites and blacks.35 A plausible explanation is that whites resent blacks, who are in fact getting a large edge in the admissions process and often in scholarship assistance and many of whom, as whites look around their own campus and others, “don’t belong there” academically. Some whites begin to act out these resentments. Blacks perceive the same disproportions and resentments, then conclude that the college environment is hostile to them.

We will not pursue this line of argument. Rather, we refer our readers to a growing literature by black scholars who have couched it in the context of their own experience.36 It is plain that affirmative action fosters differences in the distribution of academic ability across races in the communities on college campuses. Students are not imagining these differences.

BLACK DROPOUT RATES. The high black dropout rates from college are also easier to understand in the light of the figure above. Typically, the black dropout rate from universities in the last decade has run at about twice the white rate.37 This was also true of the NLSY. Of all those who ever entered a four-year institution, 63 percent of whites had gotten a bachelor’s degree by 1990 (when the youngest reached 26) compared to only 34 percent of blacks. But the discrepancy is not mysterious. The first and dominant explanation of higher black dropout rates is cognitive ability. Controlling for age and IQ, the black and white dropout rates converge. Given the average IQ of those who entered four-year institutions (about 110), the expected probability that a youth entering a four-year college would graduate was 59 percent for blacks and 61 percent for whites, a trivial difference.38

But whereas cognitive ability explains most of the difference in dropout rates, it may not explain everything. In particular, the NLSY data reflect the overall experience of blacks and whites, ignoring the experience at specific colleges as we described it earlier. Let us consider MIT, for which dropout rates by race have also been reported. In 1985, the average SAT-Math score for a black male accepted at MIT was 659, a score that put him above the 90th percentile of all students taking the SAT but below the 25th centile of all students at MIT.39 The dropout rate for black students at MIT in the mid-1980s was 24 percent, compared to 14 percent for whites.40 Even if the average MIT black freshman in 1985 could indeed do the work there in some objective sense, getting discouraged about one’s capacity to compete in an environment may be another cost of affirmative action, a phenomenon that has been described anecdotally by a number of observers, black and white alike.41

The Population’s-Eye View of People with College Degrees

The other vantage point to take into account is the view of the public toward minority and white college graduates. The college degree—what it is and where you got it—packs a lot of information in today’s America, not just as a credential that employers evaluate in hiring but as a broad social signal. One may lament this (people ought to be judged on their own merits, not by where they went to school), but it also has a positive side. Historically, that little sentence, “I have a [solid degree] from [a well-regarded university],” jolted you loose from any number of stereotypes that the person you encountered might have had of you. The reason it did so was that a well-regarded college had a certain set of standards, and its graduates presumably met those standards. No matter what one’s view is of “credentialing” in theory, the greatest beneficiaries of credentialing are those who are subject to negative stereotypes. One of the great losses of preferential affirmative action has been to dilute the effects of the university credential for some minorities. Today the same degree from the same university is perceived differently if you have a black face or a white one. This is not a misguided prejudice that will be changed if only people are given more accurate information about how affirmative action really works. On the contrary, more accurate information about how affirmative action really works confirms such perceptions.

This unhappy reality is unnecessary. There is no reason that minority graduates from any given college have to be any different from white college graduates in their ability or accomplishments. Restoring the value of the credential is easy: Use uniform procedures for selecting, grading, and granting degrees to undergraduates. Some difference in the cognitive distributions among college graduates would still remain, because even if individual schools were to treat applicants and students without regard to race, we could expect some cognitive difference in the national distributions of graduates (since a group with disproportionately fewer high-scoring students would probably gravitate to less competitive schools; they would graduate, but nonetheless have lower mean ability). But within schools, the group differences could be as close to zero as the institution chooses to get. America’s universities are instead perpetuating in the ranks of their graduates the same gap in cognitive ability that separates blacks and Latinos from whites in the general population. As we saw in the data on law and medical schools, there is no reason to think that the gap shrinks as people move further up the educational ladder, and some reason to think it continues to grow.

Some will argue the gap in ability is an acceptable price to pay for the other good things that are supposed to be accomplished by aggressive affirmative action. Our judgment, in contrast, is that in trying to build a society where ethnicity no longer matters in the important events in life, it is crucially important that society’s prestigious labels have the same or as close to the same meaning as possible for different ethnic groups. In the case of one of these key labels—the educational degree—policymakers, aided and abetted by the universities, have prevented this from happening.

We will trace some of the consequences in the next chapter, when we turn to affirmative action in the workplace and present at more length our assessment of how the double standard embedded in affirmative action affects society. For now, we will observe only that the seeds of the consequences in the workplace and beyond are sown in colleges and universities. To anticipate our larger conclusion, affirmative action as it is being practiced is a grave error.


We urge that affirmative action in the universities be radically modified, returning to the original conception. Universities should cast a wide net in seeking applicants, making special efforts to seek talent wherever it lives—in the black South Bronx, Latino Los Angeles, and white Appalachia alike. In the case of two candidates who are fairly closely matched otherwise, universities should give the nod to the applicant from the disadvantaged background. This original sense of affirmative action seems to us to have been not only reasonable and fair but wise.

What does “closely matched” mean in terms of test scores? We have no firm rules, but as a guideline, admissions officers might aim for an admissions policy such that no identifiable group (such as a racial minority) has a mean that is more than half a standard deviation below the rest of the student body.42 This guideline is by no means demanding. In effect, it asks only that the average minority student is at the 30th centile of the white distribution. Perhaps experience would prove that this is not closely matched enough. But at least let us move toward that standard and see how it works. The present situation, with black students averaging well over a full standard deviation below the white mean, sometimes approaching two standard deviations, is so far out of line with any plausible rationale that universities today cannot publish the data on their admitted students and hope to persuade the public (or specialists in education) that their policies are reasonable.

Would an end to aggressive affirmative action mean that minorities who can profit from a genuine college education will find the door of opportunity closed to them? There is no reason to think so. On the contrary, we urge that people examine more closely an ignored, brief era in American university life—from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. Simultaneously, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, white upper-middle-class America was having its consciousness raised on the subject of racial discrimination, and color-blindness was actively taken as the ideal. At many colleges during that era, applicants were forbidden to enclose a photograph and instructed to avoid any information in the essay that might help identify their race or religion. Whether admissions committees were truly innocent of this information is another question, but the intent was clear, and so was the result: Racial differences in qualifications during that time were minor, or so it appeared to both of us at the time.

What were campus race relations like then? What were the attitudes of the black students toward achievement? What was the performance of black students relative to the predictions that might have been made based on their high school performance? What were the dropout rates of blacks relative to whites in the same institution? What were the subsequent careers of black students from that era? How do black students from that era, looking back, assess the pluses and minuses of the current state of affairs versus their experience?

We must put such topics as questions because that era has been ignored. We suggest this possibility: American universities once approached the ideal in their handling of race on the campus, and there is no reason why they could not do so again.

Fewer blacks would be at Berkeley or Yale if there were no affirmative action. But admitting half as many black students to Yale does not mean that the rejected ones will not go to college; it just means that they will not go to Yale. For some individuals who are not chosen, this will be a loss, for others a blessing, but it is a far different choice from “college” versus “no college.” It is not even clear how much the goals of diversity would be adversely affected for the system as a whole. If affirmative action in its present form were ended, the schools at the very top would have smaller numbers of blacks and some other minorities on their campuses, but many other schools in the next echelons would add those students, even as they lost some of their former students to schools further down the line. And at every level of school, the gap in cognitive ability between minorities and whites would shrink.

Ending affirmative action as it is currently practiced will surely have other effects. Affirmative action does in fact bring a significant number of minority students onto campuses who would not otherwise be there. Perhaps the overall percentage of some minorities who attend college would drop. But their white counterparts at the same level of ability and similar socioeconomic background are not in college now. To what extent is a society fair when people of similar ability and background are treated as differently as they are now? In 1964, the answer would have been unambiguous: Such a society is manifestly unfair. The logic was right then, and right now.