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Jan. 14: Universal Ban on Affirmative Action Would Shrink Minority Presence At Top-Tier Colleges by More Than One-Third, Finds Carnegie Mellon Study


Mark Burd                            

Universal Ban on Affirmative Action Would Shrink Minority Presence
At Top-Tier Colleges by More Than One-Third, Finds Carnegie Mellon Study

Tepper School of Business Research Indicates Color-Blind Enrollment Would Provide Little Gain
To Non-Minority Students and Result in Alternative Minority Enrollment Strategies

PITTSBURGH—New research from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University provides compelling evidence that a universal ban on affirmative action in higher education would severely limit the level of minority enrollment at top-tier colleges in the United States. In fact, universally "race-blind" admissions and financial aid policies could reduce the number of minorities at the nation's best higher education institutions by as much as 35 percent, or to about 5 percent of the overall student body. In addition, it would likely compel schools to seek other means of ensuring racial parity within their student bodies.
The Tepper School research follows several major court decisions in recent years that have called into question the constitutionality of affirmative action programs and promoted speculation about their potential elimination in the future. Most recently, the United States Supreme Court issued two landmark decisions in 2003 on the issue of affirmative action, supporting the constitutionality of such policies at the graduate level but ruling against similar programs at the undergraduate level.
While the study confirms that affirmative action programs do result in minority students paying lower tuition and attending higher quality schools — in some cases over equally qualified non-minority students — it found that non-minority students would actually gain relatively little in terms of well-being if affirmative action programs were to be eliminated altogether.
"As the debate over the constitutionality and the educational benefits of affirmative action rages on, the drastic impact we document resulting from a ban on such programs should give us all a moment's pause," said Holger Sieg, professor of economics at the Tepper School of Business and co-author of the study. "Such a change would do more than alter the racial composition of our nation's colleges. It would likely have a substantial affect on the distribution of gains resulting from higher education in the overall U.S. population."

Simulating the effects of affirmative action in higher education
Empirical evidence abounds about the positive effects of affirmative action programs in higher education, where minorities have made significant gains in the United States over the past three decades, rising to more than 32 percent of college undergraduates in 2004 from just 17 percent in 1976 (National Center for Education Statistics). But to estimate the potential impact of eliminating such programs, researchers developed a model built on admission and tuition policy data from the United States Census, Peterson's survey of colleges and universities, the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics. The model replicates how colleges compete to maximize a "quality index" — based upon academic qualification of the student body, educational resources per student, and measures related to income and racial diversity.
Even if affirmative action programs were to be banned completely, colleges would likely pursue affirmative-action-type policies to promote cross-racial understanding and better prepare students for today's increasingly diverse workplace and society. "For example, colleges might admit more students with high or moderately high family incomes but relatively low scores on standardized college entrance exams, as these students are more likely to be from minority populations," Sieg said. "In essence, a ban on affirmative action wouldn't remove considerations of race, but simply replace them with other ways to help achieve a measure of racial parity."
The study, "Diversity and Affirmative Action in Higher Education," was published in the August 2008 edition of the Journal of Public Economic Theory, and is available for download at In addition to Sieg, co-authors included Dennis Epple, the Thomas Lord Professor of Economics at the Tepper School of Business, and Richard Romano, the Gerald L. Gunter Professor of Economics at the University of Florida. The research was funded, in part, by the MacArthur Foundation and the National Science Foundation.