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November 13, 2004

Cascades in Affirmative Action; Sander Data

Richard Sander of UCLA has written an article on the effects of affirmative action, and has posted his data on a webpage. It is an empirical article with an unusual angle, addressing the question of whether a student who is admitted to a school but knows he has gotten in by non-standard means and will be in the bottom 10% of the class should accept admission or go to a school where he would be average instead. This is a general point, whether a student gets special admission because of the color of his skin or because his father has political connections, but it is especially relevant to affirmative action because students admitted to it are so likely to be at the very bottom of their class.

Law schools are an especially good case to analyze, because law graduates go on to take the bar exam, so we have an independent measure of success. It has long been known in law school circles that many elite law schools have lower bar pass rates than average law schools, and that within an elite law school, law school grades are a good predictor of whether a student will pass the bar. A student at the bottom of his elite law school class will flunk the bar, where if that same student had gone to an average law school he would have passed it. That is because the elite law school teaches courses in a different style and to a different level, suited to their average or top students and not to their bottom students.

Anyway, Sander's article-- which I have not yet read, and post for reference-- looks at how many black students pass the bar exam now and how many would pass if there were no affirmative action programs. Without affirmative action programs, fewer black students would go to law school, but their chances of passing the bar would be better.

I've thought of trying to model the "cascade" effect which is part of this. If we had no affirmative action, black students would still go to law school-- they just would not go to as good law schools as they do now. The student who under affirmative action goes to Harvard would go to UCLA instead; the UCLA student would go to Iowa, and so forth. Thus, when Harvard started using affirmative action, that meant UCLA did not get as high-quality black students as it did before. If UCLA wanted even to maintain the number of black students it would have in a race-neutral world, it would have to use affirmative action, setting lower admission standards for blacks than for whites. This, in turn, would reduce the number of black students at Iowa, and the cascade would go down to the very bottom law school. If schools value having black students, affirmative action by a school imposes a negative externality on all the schools below it. (Though, on the other hand, a school that does not care about race gets a positive externality: Harvard's choice of the UCLA black student means some smarter white student has been denied admission by Harvard, and *that* student will go to UCLA.)

I think it could be the case that even if we accept that it is good for an individual school to have more black students, that every school but the very top one would be worse if schools are free to use affirmative action, because of this cascade effect. Every school would like to be the only one to use affirmative action, but when all do it, only the top school ends up better off. Probably the modelling result would be that in the affirmative-action equilibrium, every school but the top school has the same percentage of blacks but with lower ability than if racial discrimination were not practiced by anybody-- almost a Pareto-worsening from the point of view of the schools.

Posted by erasmuse at November 13, 2004 09:45 PM

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