Do preferences work?  What do the results show for those institutions that actually employ them, recognizing that the number of colleges and universities that actually do so is much smaller than most individuals believe.  As William G. Bowen and Derek Bok stressed in their important study, “[m]any people are unaware of how few [institutions] have enough applicants to be able to pick and choose among them,” estimating “that only about 20 to 30 percent of all four-year colleges and universities are in this category.” (p. 15).  The same is true for certain specialized areas of study – typically, colleges of law and medicine – that are held in high regard where the number of qualified applicants far exceeds the number of available slots. 

These are, of course, precisely the programs that upwardly mobile individuals and their families dream of attending, for good reason.  And a parallel reality is that individuals from what are characterized as “under-represented minority groups” are generally at a competitive disadvantage if admissions decisions are largely if not exclusively made on the basis of measures traditionally associated with individual “academic merit.”  As Professor Derrick Bell observed, “[t]he qualifications [selective institutions] insist on are precisely the credentials and skills that have long been denied to people of color.” Bell, p. 1605. 

The raw numbers are stark but revealing.  The detailed record developed in the current Harvard College litigation revealed that Harvard routinely receives substantially more applications than it could possibly accept for the number of places it has in has in a typical entering class.  For the group applying to become its Class of 2019, for example, there were some 35,000 applications for the 1,600 places it sought to fill.  Of them, “approximately 2,700 has a perfect verbal SAT scores; 3,400 had a perfect SAT math scores, and more than 8,000 had perfect GPAs.”  397 F. Supp. at 134. 

Minority applicants who Harvard deemed otherwise qualified for admission lagged behind other groups in terms of these credentials.  This made the use of a plus granted on that basis necessary if Harvard was to achieve the sort of diversity it seeks.  The data showed that “eliminating consideration of race would cause African American representation at Harvard to decline from approximately 14% to 6% of the student population and Hispanic representation to decline from 14% to 9%.”  Id. at 178.  The net effect was that “race is a determinative tip for approximately 45% of all admitted African American and Hispanic applicants.”  Id.  In a similar vein, the University of Texas at Austin argued in Fisher II that when it was not allowed to use race as a plus in the admissions process in the wake of Hopwood it experienced “consistent stagnation in terms of the percentage of minorities enrolling[.]”  36 S. Ct. at 2212.

 Viewed solely then as a measure of who secures scarce admissions offers and eventually enrolls, preferences clearly work.

List of Citations

Derrick Bell. “Xerces and the Affirmative Action Mystique.” 1989: George Washington Law Review, Vol. 57, No. 6, pp. 1595-1613.

William G. Bowen & Derek Bok. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. 1998: Princeton University Press.

Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin, 136 S. Ct. 2198 (2016) (Fisher II).

Hopwood v. State of Texas, 78 F.3d 932 (5th Cir. 1996).

Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 397 F. Supp. 3d 126 (D. Mass. 2019).

Additional Reading

Camille Z. Charles, Mary J. Fisher. Margarita A. Mooney & Douglas S. Massey. Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial, and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities. 2009: Princeton University Press.