On Oct. 2 a panel of CSU administrators discussed “the facts
about affirmative action.” All seemed to agree that affirmative
action benefits everyone and harms no one; that ethnic minority
students do not receive preferential treatment; and that students
are only admitted if they have the academic skills they will need
However, the facts about CSU admissions show that all of this is
wishful thinking. CSU assigns an index score to applicants derived
from their high school rank, GPA, and SAT score. Applicants are
supposed to have an index score of at least 101 to be admitted.
However, some students are admitted through a special “window,”
meaning that they are admitted even though their index scores fall
below the minimum.
According to CSU’s Office of Budgets and Institutional Analysis
(OBIA), last year about 20 percent of minority freshman came in
with very low index scores of 95 or below, compared to about 5
percent of majority students.
These low scores represent serious deficiencies in academic
preparation. Affirmative action increases the number of ethnic
minority students on campus, but it only does so by admitting more
students who are less likely to graduate.
The OBIA data clearly show that graduation rates are correlated
with index scores. About two-third of the students with the lowest
index scores drop out within five years, compared to about
one-third of the students with the highest index scores.
Furthermore, the chances are good that many of those with high
index scores fail to graduate because they transfer to other
universities, while those with low index scores are more likely to
drop out of higher education altogether.
Since minority students are more likely to have low index
scores, they are less likely to graduate. The gap is especially
acute with African-American students, only 45 percent of whom have
graduated or are still enrolled after five years. Among
European-American students the comparable figure is 65 percent.
The news is not all bad. Many minority students have strong
academic skills and do well. The graduation rate of
Hispanic-American students has risen sharply over the past few
years and now stands at 60 percent. The poor grades and high drop
out rates of some minority students should not be generalized to
all minority students.
Nonetheless, there is no denying that the students who receive
the greatest boost from affirmative action are the ones who are
most likely to struggle academically. The only effect of
affirmative action on well-prepared minority students is to
surround them with unsuccessful peers. It is hard to see how this
Affirmative action would not be necessary in the absence of the
large, well-documented, ethnic gap in academic skills. For example,
African-American students nationally score 200 points lower than
European-American students on the SAT. As long as the SAT is a
factor in college admissions – and none of the panelists proposed
scrapping it – then diversity goals cannot be achieved in the
absence of significant preferences.
University administrators have spent years denying that
affirmative action means preferential treatment. They insist that
ethnicity is just one factor among many in the admissions process.
Their purported goal is merely one of educational quality, which
they identify with diversity.
Unfortunately, none of these statements can stand up to factual
scrutiny. To achieve diversity goals, many minority students are
admitted with inadequate qualifications. Ethnicity then becomes the
dominant factor in the admissions process. The result is higher
drop out rates, not better educational quality.
If administrators think that the benefits of preferential
treatment outweigh its harms, then let them say so and explain
their reasoning. But let’s at least honestly acknowledge the facts
about affirmative action.
Steven Shulman is a professor of economics. He teaches and
writes about poverty, inequality and discrimination.