Thursday, July 8, 2010

Is affirmative action a distraction?

Note: When discussing affirmative action, everyone I've ever met that argued for it for the sake of diversity later admitted or showed they were being disingenuous. I'm just going to ignore the diversity argument.

A friend of mine had to write an essay about affirmative action for class, but she had a hard time figuring out what to write. She had mixed feelings, like most Americans do, caught between the value of "fairness," which affirmative action promotes, and an intolerance for racial discrimination, which is an unfortunately by-product.

She asked some friends for their opinions. I said I think in practice it's such a mess that it's not worth waxing philosophical on the theory. I pointed out that at our school two races were vastly underrepresented (vs. the U.S. population) while the two other large racial groups were overrepresented, one marginally so. The underrepresented groups were, of course, Blacks and Hispanics, except for the fact that they weren't. Hispanics were marginally overrepresented, while Blacks and Whites were underrepresented. Is the goal of affirmative action to give extra weight to one group (Hispanics) until it's relatively easy to get in at the expense of making is substantially more difficult for another (Whites). And wasn't affirmative action started to help Blacks? You wouldn't know if from the numbers, which look even worse under a microscope. It turns out that 35-40% of blacks were the children of highly educated Caribbean and African immigration, not disadvantaged decedents of slaves.

I've since changed my mind. The fact that affirmative action is so bad at getting the intended effect is probably only a marginal concern. The real questions are:

1. Does going to a more selective college even promote happiness (help people)?

2. What is the opportunity cost of affirmative action activism? Are there other reforms that could help more people?

The answer to is probably a conditional "Yes." Kruger and Dale found that going to more selective colleges increases earning for students for low-income backgrounds. Financial aid is more generous (as a rule of thumb) at more selective colleges too, and students are less likely to drop out, probably due to peer effects. Income, however, is only loosely correlated with happiness, and every student admitted on affirmative action likely crowds out almost one student, so the costs may wipe out the vast majority of the benefit. Furthermore, as discussed above, many (perhaps most) people who benefit from affirmative are not from low-income backgrounds. The benefits, then, seem modest but real.

The opportunity cost for activists, on the other hand, is probably substantial. Lobbying for universal pre-K, simpler financial aid forms, against credential inflation (which affirmative action may contribute to), for more Pell Grants, or implementing value-added models for teachers would all probably provide a bigger return (on time invested) of helping disadvantaged people improve their lot in life.

So, yes, affirmative action is a mess. It might even be harmful, but those costs are hard to quantify. But it does seem to improve the lives of a few thousand beneficiaries each year. The question is whether the real cost of helping those thousands is ignoring millions of others.

Update: One obvious question is why affirmative action (AA) became such a big rallying point for activists in a way that, say, universal pre-K didn't. Isn't the fact that people are willing to fight "by any means necessary" for AA, but not for pre-K, evidence that AA is more worth fighting for? No. AA is in the spotlight because it is controversial. Controversial issues always attract more attention even if they effect few people and only in marginal ways (e.g. gay marriage). Furthermore, the beneficiaries of AA have political clout. Educated blacks and self-righteous elites in Ivy League schools have a lot more political clout than single moms in Harlem and Roxbury, and the former are naturally more interested in AA because it benefits them directly and because it's under their nose. The fact that many people, like Lee Bollinger, are in favor of AA because of self interest is probably an uncomfortable thought. But that doesn't make the claim false.

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