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3:33 pm
Tue October 9, 2012

How Does Affirmative Action Impact Colleges?

Originally published on Tue October 9, 2012 6:10 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

What happens when race is taken out of university admissions? In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which bans state government institutions including the universities from considering race, sex or ethnicity in their policies. The results of Prop 209 are in dispute, and that dispute is argued in briefs filed in the Fisher case. The president and chancellors of the University of California have filed a brief in support of the University of Texas' plan.

After Prop 209, it says, the rates at which under-represented minority students applied to or admitted to and enrolled at the University of California fell often by very significant percentages at every UC campus. And they say at the most selective campuses, these declines were steep.

Well, joining us now is a UCLA law professor who has also filed a brief arguing the contrary. Richard Sander argues in a new book, "Mismatch," that while minority admissions and enrollment at the most selective UC campuses may have declined after Prop 209, the number of minority students receiving degrees is the same. Race conscious admissions, he argues, created a mismatch - students were in over their heads at elite campuses and they didn't finish. Have I summed up "Mismatch" pretty well there?

RICHARD SANDER: I think so.

SIEGEL: You and journalist Stuart Taylor argue that, say, a law student who's in the top fifth of the class at 30th ranked Fordham Law School will earn just as well as a student at fifth ranked Columbia Law School who finishes, say, below to middle of the class. So, the advantage of being admitted to the more competitive school is outweighed by how well you do, doing better at the less competitive school. This is central to the idea of "Mismatch."

SANDER: It's important. You know, most students who are evaluating where to go to college or where to go to professional schools had nothing more to guide them than U.S. News rankings. And those are all about eliteness. But what's really relevant, as we argue in the book, is how you as an individual are going to fare at that school. And if you go to a school where most of the students have much stronger qualifications, you're very likely to get poor grades, and those end up having a bigger effect on your career than getting an elite degree.

SIEGEL: But there's research by Alan Krueger, of Princeton University and now the White House Chief Economic adviser who's studied this issue, and he found that while it's true that it might not enhance your earnings to go to an elite school as opposed to a less competitive one, while it's generally true, it's not equally true for African-American, Latino or poor students. That, for them, going to the elite school "does increase earnings significantly," quote, unquote.

SANDER: It's an interesting finding and Krueger is a terrific economist. But the research on the earnings effects of going to a more elite school is actually very divided. So I think that's an issue where there's a legitimate difference of opinion. There's much less difference of opinion in terms of careful research about what the GPA effects are, what the graduation effects are, what are the effects of law graduates passing bar exams. In all those areas, the evidence for mismatch is pretty overwhelming.

SIEGEL: You argue in your brief against race-based admissions because of the damage they do to minority students who are admitted into schools where they find themselves in out of their depth. The Fisher case is being brought by an aggrieved white applicant. If, in fact, the damage here is being done to minority students, why aren't minority groups all over the country lined up with Abigail Fisher? And what is it that you see about the harm being done to black and Latino students that groups of black and Latino students don't see?

SANDER: There's a strong issue of solidarity, I think, behind racial identification with preferences that somehow this is repairing past wrongs and making groups whole. As we discuss in the book, there are hundreds of individuals that we talked to who, in fact, see mismatch in their own lives. And if the Supreme Court mandates, as we hope, greater transparency, we think there will be a lot of pressure for change because many students are going into schools where their actual prospects, given their credentials, are really quite poor.

SIEGEL: And you say that they would be better off going to a school where their credentials are better matched to the competitiveness of the school?

SANDER: Yeah. And the University of California experience really illustrates this. You mention what happened at the most elite campuses, but across the whole eight-campus system, minority enrollment went up dramatically. It's much higher now than it was before Prop 209. And the number of graduates, the number of black and Hispanic graduates, has more than doubled.

It's also important, in light of that earlier report that you had from Andrea, to note that the level of integration across the eight UC campuses was higher after Prop 209, because Berkeley and UCLA were admitting a very disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics. And there's very interesting research showing that social interaction is fostered by having students with closer academic credentials, that there's a lot of cross-stereotyping when the academic distances are large.

So, it's logical to think there's actually going to be better social interaction when racial preferences are lower.

SIEGEL: Professor Richard Sander of UCLA Law School, co-author with Stuart Taylor of "Mismatch," thank you very much for talking with us.

SANDER: It was great to be here.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow we'll hear from Nina Totenberg about the arguments before the Supreme Court in this case. Also, last week, we asked for your thoughts about affirmative action, and tomorrow we'll hear what some of you had to say.

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SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.