Not guilty! – study supports contention that, in most cases, affirmative action does not deny Whites access to higher education

The most ardent argument made against affirmative action is that it
allows less qualified African American and Hispanic students to take
seats away from more qualified White students.

In an attempt to find out if that is true, the Frederick T.
Patterson Research Institute of The College Fund/UNCF studied the
relevant records. The answer it came up with: maybe sometimes, but not

Certainly in the most aggregate sense it is not true, according to
the study. The institutions that practice the most affirmative action
— as a whole — expanded their freshman classes by about as much as
the increased number of incoming African American and Hispanic students.

And the African American and Hispanic students who attend those
schools have the same credentials — again, for the most part — as the
White students. It did find, however, that qualified African American
and Hispanic students are much more likely to be admitted to top
selective institutes than their White counterparts — as much as
two-and-a-half times as likely. With those findings, the Patterson
Institute — the research arm of The College Fund/UNCF (formerly the
United Negro College Fund) — is attempting to weigh in on one of the
most contentious issues of public policy today with a careful analysis
of available, if often times insufficient, data.

The study was led by Dr. Michael T. Nettles, at the direction of
the board of directors of The College Fund, which has traditionally
represented the interests of private historically Black colleges and

The board wanted to know, Nettles said, whether college attendance
rates among African Americans would drop if affirmative action ended.
The answer, he explained, was “No. But we could see a slowdown at the
top institutions.”

The study found that only 342 of the nation’s 1,808 four-year
colleges and universities are likely to use affirmative action. Because
the rest admit most students who apply, questions of selectivity are
not particularly relevant. Of those 342, only about 120 are “serious
affirmative action institutions” in Nettles’s words, meaning that they
are the institutions where there has been the greatest gain in numbers
of African American and Hispanic students in the past decade or so.

Nettles, who is both executive director of the Patterson Institute
and professor of education at the University of Michigan, says these
120 institutions are the very top tier of competitive colleges and
universities. They include both private institutions, which are not
publicly accountable for their admissions policies, and selective
public institutions, such as the University of California, which are
governed by public agencies.

Reaping the Benefits

Of the top 120 institutions under consideration, many expanded the
size of their freshman classes by at least as many as the number of
Black and Hispanic students they had admitted in the last decade. (see
BI The Numbers, page 12.)

For example, the University of Virginia increased its incoming
freshman class by 292 from 1984 to 1995. The total number of Black and
Hispanic students admitted in those years increased by 237.

The findings of the study are clearly preliminary and, in fact,
call for considerably more study of admissions practices at selective
institutions in order to get to the truth about affirmative action.
However, Nettles said, it appears that “three out of ten African
American students at the 120 institutions may have benefitted from
affirmative action.”

By that he means that they may have had somewhat lower test scores
and grade point averages than their White counterparts. The median
combined math and verbal SAT test scores of African American students
attending the most competitive colleges is 162 points lower than the
median scores of White students.

However, the study documents that during a time of enormous growth
in African American college going, the proportion of African Americans
attending very competitive colleges and universities remained at 6
percent. The percentage of Hispanic first-time, full-time freshman
entering the most competitive schools increased from 9 percent to 12
percent from 1984 to 1995.

During the same time, the number of Black full-time freshmen
increased by 26 percent, or 24,873; the number of Hispanic freshmen
increased by 73 percent, or 26,632. The number of Asian students
increased by 33,163 or 117 percent. The number of White full-time
freshmen actually declined by 17,340, or two percent.

These changes suggest that despite a smaller cohort of freshman-age
students — known by demographers as the baby bust — the desire to go
to college increased enormously, pulling students who a decade ago
might not have gone to college, especially Black, Hispanic, and White

More Questions, More Research

To understand the way affirmative action has worked at each college
or university, the Patterson Institute plans to examine a sampling of
highly selective institutions to find the answers to, in the words of
the study: “who applied, who was admitted and offered financial aid,
and who enrolled from among those who were admitted.”

Because, as Nettles says, “for each institution there is a story.”

Student admissions has become a finely honed science, especially at
private institutions. Admissions officials often take time to balance
their incoming freshman classes with a number of factors, including
race, ethnicity, geography, unusual educational backgrounds, life
experience, and special training such as music or art. Most say they do
not count SAT scores as highly as they do grades and the kind of
curriculum students take.

Many selective institutions also weigh whether a student is the
child of an alumnus. Because many institutions keep their admissions
records secret, it is unclear how much weight that factor is given.
Although Nettles said the legacy issue could be an important one in
admissions, the Patterson study did not look at it. He said he expected
the question would be addressed in future Patterson studies.

An article in The Washington Monthly in 1991, however, shed a
little light on the issue of legacies. Written by a former editor of
The Harvard Crimson, the article reported that fully one-fifth of
Harvard’s entering classes in the 1980s were “legacies,” or children of
alumni. The article was written subsequent to an investigation by the
U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights which found that
“with the exception of the athletic rating, [admitted] nonlegacies
scored better than legacies in all areas of comparison.”

Nettles is hoping to work cooperatively with a sampling of
selective colleges to find out exactly how admissions policies are
developed and administered.

“To try to get a collection of universities to participate, we’ve
asked three high profile university presidents to talk,” Nettles

He hopes to get the cooperation of about twenty institutions so as
to be able to include some of each kind of category — large, small,
East Coast, West Coast, public, private, and so on.

Knowing Which Court the Ball Is In

The reason the institute has undertaken the study is laid out in
the opening narrative, in which it cites recent challenges to
affirmative action threatening the “progress that has been achieved
because of these policies.” It cites in particular Hopwood v. Texas, in
which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an affirmative
action policy at the University of Texas-Austin law school in 1996, and
Podberesky v. Kirwan, in which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals
struck down a scholarship program for African Americans at the
University of Maryland.

Because the Supreme Court did not review those cases, its ruling in
Bakke remains its last word. The study cites Supreme Court Justice
Lewis F. Powell’s opinion in Bakke for developing two justifications
for affirmative action. One is that an institution should compensate
for its own prior discrimination. The other is that institutions should
attain a “diverse student body” because it contributes to “the robust
exchange of ideas.” It is the second justification that most
institutions use to administer affirmative action policies. But that
justification has recently come under increasing attack by critics, who
say that no amount of diversity is worth the lowering of standards.

The fact that the Supreme Court also refused to review a Ninth
Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that required the implementation of
California’s anti-affirmative-action referendum, Proposition 209, has
led some to believe the Supreme Court’s commitment to affirmative
action has waivered.

A test of that assertion will come during the current session of
the Supreme Court, because it has agreed to. hear an appeal in the case
of Board of Education of Piscataway v. Taxman, which involves
affirmative action in teacher layoffs. However, it may riot answer the
question as it relates to college and university admissions policies.

Change the First-Time, Full-Time Freshmen Enrollment: Fall 1984 to Fall 1995

Racial Group 1984 1995 Change Percent

Total 1,030,061 1,078,337 48,276 5%

Asian 28,341 61,504 33,163 117%

Black 97,267 122,140 24,873 26%

Hispanic 36,434 63,066 26,632 73%

White 818,622 801,282 -17,340 -2%

Source: Frederick T. Patterson Research Institute, The College Fund/UNCF, 1997

First-Time, Full-Time Freshmen Enrolled in Fall 1995 by Institutional Selectivity and Racial/Ethnic Group

Selectivity Number of Total Black Hispanic

Total 1,808 1,078,337 122,140 63,066

(column %) 100% 100% 100% 100%
(row %) 100% 11% 6%

competitive 48 45,575 2,862 2,512
3% 4% 2% 4%
100% 6% 6%

competitive 72 86,950 4,712 5,012
4% 8% 4% 8%
100% 5% 6%

competitive 222 214,895 13,685 14,262
12% 20% 11% 23%
100% 6% 7%

Competitive 642 435,405 44,531 22,073
36% 40% 36% 35%
100% 10% 5%

competitive 293 164,462 36,035 10,439
16% 15% 30% 17%
100% 22% 6%

Non-competitive 117 67,702 14,755 4,260
6% 6% 12% 7%
100% 22% 6%

Other 414 63,348 5,660 4,508
23% 6% 5% 7%

Selectivity White Asian

Total 801,282 61,504

(column %) 100% 100%
(row %) 74% 6%

competitive 31,891 6,110
4% 10%
70% 13%

competitive 65,976 8,600
8% 14%
76% 10%

competitive 161,824 18,781
20% 31%
75% 9%

Competitive 339,423 18,451
42% 30%
78% 4%

competitive 108,213 5,859
14% 10%
66% 4%

Non-competitive 45,549 1,476
6% 2%
67% 2%

Other 48,406 2,227
6% 4%
76% 4%

Note: Other includes specialized institutions (e.g., art, business,
teaching, etc.) and institutions not rated by Barron’s Profile of
American Colleges,

Source: Frederick T. Patterson Research Institute, The College Fund/UNCF, 1997.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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