The argument for preferences is that they foster student body diversity, a proposition that appears to be true given what admissions data many elite institutions reveal (see Do Preferences Work? Admissions).

The argument in favor of student body diversity, in turn, is that it leads to a series of positive educational outcomes that enhance learning and prepare students for what they will encounter as they live and work in an increasingly diverse nation.

In her opinion for the Court in Grutter Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated that the benefits of diversity are “substantial” and “are not theoretical, but real.” 539 U.S. at 330. She relied on a combination of sources and authorities for this, including both perspectives offered by interested parties and “expert studies” that were introduced at trial. These claims have nevertheless been the focus of intense debate since Grutter was decided. In particular, scholars from a wide array of disciplines have conducted studies that have both supported and disputed whether the results occur and, in some instances, whether outcomes are actually harmful rather than beneficial.

For example, one study using national data from a survey of over 16,000 faculty at 159 institutions found “the the diversity of the faculty and student body has an impact on classroom environment and student development during college.” Characterizing her findings as “compelling,” Hurtado concluded that diversity “is associated with important outcomes that will prepare students for living in a complex and diverse society.” On the other hand, a survey of studies examining the experiences of minority medical students found that they “experienced less supportive social and less positive learning environments, were subjected to discrimination and racial harassment, and were more likely to see their race as having a negative impact on their medical school experience.” And, in an interesting variant, Loes et al. found that while “diversity experiences may have important implications for the intellectual development of substantial numbers of students during the first year of college” it was not a “programmatic ‘silver bullet’ equally influential for all students.”

These are just three examples of the findings. As always, our goal is not to dissect the studies or to take a position on either side of the debate. Rather, we simply want to note the nature of the research being undertaken, the complex issues it explores, and the conflicting results that fuel the debate about the need for and efficacy of preferences and diversity.

The arguments are even more intense when the focus is on what some describe as very large preferences and explore their effect on student performance.  In a nutshell, the question whether we are really doing a student a favor if, by use of an admissions preference, we enable her to enroll at a more elite school than she would otherwise attend.  Most observers agree that a preference which lifts a student from, say, Pepperdine University to Pomona College has both potentially good and bad effects.  The same would be true for a first generation student from inner-city Detroit who opts to attend the University of Michigan rather than her local institution, Wayne State University.

On the good side, a more “elite” degree can be helpful in the job market or in applying to graduate schools, and the added intellectual challenge of a Pomona or Michigan may spur a student on to greater achievement.  On the bad side, the student receiving a preference may feel intellectually overwhelmed by the tougher competition and higher standards at the more elite school.  She is not only likely to have a lower class rank at Pomona or Michigan than she should have had at Pepperdine or Wayne State, but may actually learn less because the teaching is not aimed at students with her level of preparation.  Socially, she may feel more stigmatized and out of place.

Most observers agree that how these potential positive and negative effects balance out will vary from one student to another.  Scholars who have found strong evidence of negative effects usually limit their arguments to very specific contexts. 

For example, in the early 2000s, Elinor Barber and Stephen Cole undertook a comprehensive study of factors that could explain the small supply of Black and Hispanic doctorate-holders going into academia.  Their study was supported by the Council of Ivy League Presidents and included an ambitious survey of thousands of students.  The resulting book, Increasing Academic Diversity, was published by Harvard University Press.  One major impediment in the “minority pipeline” problem, they found, was the widespread use of admissions preferences.  A smart, high-achieving Black or Hispanic high school student who aspired to eventually become a college professor was twice as likely to abandon that aspiration if the student received a large admissions preference.  The reason, Barber and Cole surmised, was that large preferences made it very likely that the student would land in a very highly-competitive environment, surrounded by students with more advanced preparation.  Getting mediocre grades, or worse, would naturally turn these students off from the idea of a career in academia, and they would adjust their career aspirations accordingly.  Despite the book’s distinguished pedigree, its findings have been notably ignored by defenders of affirmative action.

In the early 1990s, a group of scholars at Dartmouth University, led by psychologist Rogers Elliott, secured the cooperation of administrators at four Ivy League universities to develop a dataset tracking the outcomes of students interested in pursuing careers in science.  They found that students receiving large preferences were much more likely to run into academic difficulty, and abandoned science majors in large numbers.  In 2004 Frederick Smyth and John McArdle used even better data (from the Mellon Foundation’s College and Beyond databases) to directly measure the degree to which each student’s credentials departed from the mean of his or her classmates, across a spectrum of schools from moderately-elite to highly-elite.  They found that students with much lower-than-peer credentials were only half as likely to complete STEM degrees.  Three other peer-reviewed studies published over the next twelve years, using a variety of datasets, reached essentially identical conclusions (Arcidiacono et al, 2012; Luppino et al 2015, Arcidiacono et al, 2016).  This literature on “science mismatch” has also been widely ignored, even by bodies such as the National Science Foundation that spend substantial sums on fostering better minority pipelines into STEM fields.

In 2004, UCLA’s Richard Sander published an analysis of affirmative action in law schools, using data from the Law School Admission Council’s Bar Passage Study and other sources.  He documented patterns of admissions preferences at law schools, and the links between admissions preferences, law school grades, and subsequent outcomes on bar exams.  He found that the median black student (outside historically minority law schools) in the class of 1994 had a GPA that put him at the 6th percentile of white law students, and that the grade gap was virtually all due to preferences – i.e., a “preference effect” rather than a “race effect.”  Low grades in turn dramatically lowered black bar passage rates.  Sander argued that large racial preferences in law school actually lowered the number of black lawyers, and might well have residual harmful career effects even on those who passed the bar.

Unlike the “academic pipeline” and “science” research on mismatch, Sander’s study attracted broad attention, not only within the academic community but in such national media as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and The Atlantic.  Perhaps as a result of this broad coverage, it also quickly generated a large number of critiques, including some by leading legal scholars such as Ian Ayres and Daniel Ho.  More slowly, a number of counter-critiques appeared, including a detailed survey of the literature by Peter Arcidiacono and Michael Lovenheim that the prestigious Journal of Economic Literature published in 2016.  Sander and co-author Robert Steinbuch in turn are bringing new data into the law-school-mismatch debate in an article recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Legal Education. The new research more directly measures credential disparities, and finds even larger mismatch effects than Sander’s earlier studies.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights held a hearing on the “law school mismatch” debate in 2006 and on the “science mismatch” question in 2008. These led to reports issued 2007 and 2010, respectively, that were generally sympathetic to the mismatch argument and called for greater transparency and disclosure, and further research.  Both reports were adopted by party-line votes, with Republican appointees “in favor” of the mismatch findings and Democratic appointees “against.”  Neither report produced a notable stir either in the media or in the higher education community.

A fair summary of the state of the play on the mismatch question is that the “academic pipeline” and “science” mismatch literature remains unrebutted but largely ignored. The law-school-mismatch literature is, however, highly contentious.  Our site will be adding additional materials on this debate to help readers judge the issues for themselves.

List of Citations

Peter Arcidiacono, Esteban Aucejo, and V. Joseph Hotz. “University Differences in the Graduation of Minorities in STEM Fields: Evidence from California.” 2016: American Economic Review, Vol. 106, No. 3, pp. 525.

Peter Arcidiacono, Esteban Aucejo, and Ken Spenner. “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the time path of racial differences in GPA and major choice.” 2012: IZA Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 1, No. 5.

Peter Arcidiacono & Michael Lovenheim. “Affirmative Action and the Quality-Fit Trade-Off.” 2016: Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp. 3-51.

Ian Ayres & Richard Brooks. “Does Affirmative Action Reduce the Number of Black Lawyers?” 2005: Stanford Law Review, Vol. 57, No. 6, pp. 1807-54.

Stephen Cole & Elinor Barber. Increasing faculty Diversity: The Occupational Choices of High Achieving Minority Students. 2003: Harvard University Press.

Rogers Elliott, A. Christopher Strenta, Russell Adair, Michael Matier & Jannah Scott. “The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions.” 1996: Research in Higher Education, Vol. 37, No. 6, pp. 681-709.

Daniel E. Ho. “Why Affirmative Action Does Not Cause Black Students to Fail the Bar.” 2005: Yale Law Journal, Vol. 114, No. 8, pp. 1997-2004.

Sylvia Hurtado, Linking Diversity and Educational Purpose: How Diversity Affects the Classroom Environment and Student Development. In Gary Orfield & Michael Kurlaender (Eds.), Diversity Challenged: Evidence on the Impact of Affirmative Action, pp. 187-219. 2001: Harvard Educational Publishing Group.

Chad Loes, Ernest Pascarella & Paul Umbach. “Effects of Diversity Experiences on Critical Thinking Skills: Who Benefits?” 2012: The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 83, No. 1, pp. 1-25.

Marc Luppino and Richard Sander. “College Major Peer Effects and Attrition from the Sciences.” 2015: IZA Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 4, No. 4.

Heather Orom, Teresa Semalulu & Willie Underwood III. “The Social and Learning Environments Experienced by Underrepresented Minority Medical Students: A Narrative Review.” 2013: Academic Medicine, Vol. 88, No. 11, pp. 1765-77.

Richard H. Sander. “A Systemic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools.” 2004: Stanford Law Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, pp. 367-484.

Richard H. Sander & Robert Steinbuch. “Mismatch and Bar Passage: A School-Specific Analysis.” 2021: Journal of Legal Education (forthcoming).

Frederick L. Smyth & John J. McArdle. “Ethnic and Gender Differences in Science Graduation at Selective Colleges with Implications for Admission Policy and College Choice.” 2004: Research in Higher Education, Vol. 45, No. 4, pp. 353-81.

United States Commission on Civil Rights. Affirmative Action in American Law Schools. 2007: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

United States Commission on Civil Rights. Encouraging Minority Students to Pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Careers. 2010: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Additional Reading

William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos & Michael S. McPherson. Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. 2009: Princeton University Press.

Richard H. Sander. “A Reply to Critics.” 2005: Stanford Law Review, Vol. 57, No. 6, pp. 1963-2016.

Richard H. Sander & Stuart Taylor, Jr. Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It. 2021: Basic Books.

Jim Sidanius, Shana Levin, Colette van Laar & David O. Sears. The Diversity Challenge: Social Identity and Intergroup Relations on The College Campus. 2008: Russell Sage Foundation.