Affirmative action

My friend Hank Aaron (yes the economist, not the baseball guy) sent along a nice review essay on this subject, simply titled: “What Should the Supreme Court Do About Affirmative Action?”

Hank’s email happened to arrive at the end of our admissions season. I’ve read more than 100 admissions folders this year in my capacity chairing our school’s MA-level admissions committee. This is a weighty responsibility. Ethical, legal, and operational tensions surrounding university admissions are intimately familiar to me.

I continue to be struck that most of the best arguments, on almost every side, were presented with greatest eloquence, sincerity, and rigor forty years ago in briefs and public commentary occasioned by the Bakke case, arguably the most famous Supreme Court decision of the 1970s. In 1977, McGeorge Bundy of all people provided one of the very best arguments in that case. As Bundy noted, immediate pressures for race-conscious admissions came from many sources, but its

deeper and more durable cause was the growing conviction that there was a fundamental contradiction between an asserted opposition to racism and the maintenance, by whatever process of selection, of essentially all-white colleges and professional schools.

Bundy’s essay is especially striking when one considers that Bakke was closer in time to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than we now are to the date of George W. Bush’s reelection.

We still know surprisingly little about what really matters, statistically, in predicting which of our applicants would most benefit from our academic programs to do great things in the world. One partial exception arises in medicine. There is some evidence that medical school applicants with higher MCAT scores are more technically proficient and display better clinical reasoning than otherwise similar peers, and this matters.

Even in clinical medicine, the evidence is far from definitive.  Performance on the biological and physical science MCAT portions significantly predicts grades and board scores in these areas. The links between other aspects of the MCAT and medical school performance, not to mention links to actual clinical proficiency, are much more murky.

The reality, for so many different reasons, is that we cannot provide excellent medical care to African-American or Latino patients and communities if the medical and skilled nursing workforces do not represent men and women of color in their ranks. This holds to an even greater degree in social services and public health.

It’s not merely that patients and clients want to “see people who look like them,” though this sentence crudely captures one human reality in the helping professions. More than that, one needs to know something about–have some tactile familiarity with–the life circumstances of the people one is trying to help. An endocrinologist whose teachers, classmates, and peers are all products of upper-middle-class meritocratic suburbia will be poorly-equipped to care for many of his patients.

This isn’t merely a matter of race or ethnicity. For years, medical and public health authorities struggled to address an HIV epidemic exploding within populations and communities that were worlds away from the personal experience and biography of most medical and public health practitioners. Crucial time was lost, and the HIV prevention was less effective than it should have been.

Much of the available evidence on admissions concerns who will do well in our coursework, which of course is a very different question from who will make a real difference in the world. Hank Aaron, in his nice essay, suggested that the “environment in law school is ruthlessly meritocratic to an extent true of few undergraduate programs.”  In one narrow sense that is true. Yet in another way, that’s definitely untrue. At a minimum, the criteria through which law-school “merit” is judged deserve greater scrutiny. Much of the legal curriculum is famously unrelated to actual legal practice. Many personal skills and knowledge relevant to excellent lawyering are basically unaddressed and untaught in elite legal education.

In my own teaching, students with higher math GRE scores perform much better in my economics and medical cost-effectiveness courses. That clearly matters. Yet our MA students go on to many social welfare, public health, and social work roles.  For many of my students, technical skills probably matter more within our own building than these skills matter after students walk out of our door.

There is also a weirdly revealing way we try to read people’s resumes backwards to establish their proper ranking in our meritocratic order. Donald Trump wants to inspect President Obama’s college transcripts, presumably to see whether the President benefitted from affirmative action. Leaving aside the racialized insult, it’s as if Barack Obama’s subsequent achievements leading Harvard Law Review, serving on the University of Chicago faculty, rocketing to the United States Senate and to the presidency would somehow be invalidated if it turned out that he had received a B- in freshman calculus or didn’t ace the LSAT.

Counselors in our BAM intervention reduced violent offending among participating Chicago youth by about 44%. Almost every one of those counselors was an African-American or Latino man from a community similar to those we served. Some are SSA graduates. Others might struggle in my microeconomics class. They are good at their jobs.

Race-conscious admissions aren’t my favorite. They don’t address earlier, more fundamental obstacles to upward mobility. These policies can bring genuine costs, most notably the genuine human costs imposed on worthy rejected applicants such as Allan Bakke.

A policy that results in large and visible differences in entry qualifications would be especially costly and unwise. The achievement gap is a real problem. There is something dishonest and undignified about seeking to explain it away or in criticizing generally-reasonable specific content of the tests that yield the most disturbing race/ethnic differences in mean scores.

The fact that educational institutions pursue affirmative action policies in a furtive, euphemistic way makes it hard to apply standard policy analysis to scrutinize and improve these policies over time, to understand which students are helped or hurt by such policies, or to understand how to implement these policies consistently and well. I would like to see greater attention paid to class-based differences in opportunity and to enlarging the scope of opportunity so that people aren’t so often subjected to a rat race for competitive prestige when they seek basic investments in their human capital.

For all its problems, race-conscious affirmative action remains necessary. I haven’t seen credible alternatives that aren’t worse. Abolishing affirmative action, or dramatically curtailing it, could easily bring great harm.

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