Diversity Without Quotas

It's harder than I would have thought.

No to racism

The NYT Upshot blog put together an interesting interactive feature modeling several ways to “Create a Diverse College Class Without Affirmative Action.” It turns out to be rather difficult.

Selective colleges and universities can no longer use race-based preferences in admissions to create a more diverse student body. But what if they gave a break instead to lower-income students? Or those from high-poverty schools? Or those who do relatively well academically despite challenges all around them?

To explore those questions — and how much racial diversity is possible without “race-conscious” admissions — the Upshot worked with Sean Reardon, a professor at Stanford, and Demetra Kalogrides, a senior researcher there, to model four alternatives to affirmative action.

I’m going to skip the discussions of methodology and just cut to the results and analyses.

Scenario 1 of 4: A preference for poorer students

In this scenario, we give a moderate boost to applicants on a sliding scale according to their parents’ income: from an extra 150 points for students from the poorest families, to 0 points for students from the richest ones. This creates the slope of the cutoff line you see above.

Because each of our scenarios admits a fixed class of 500 students, the results are zero-sum: As some students are newly admitted, others who might have been admitted under different policies no longer are. The magnitude of that effect — and whom it touches — differs depending on the criteria.

In this case, as more low-income students are admitted, some high-income students with SAT scores just above 1300 no longer get in. That trade-off creates significantly more economic diversity, as this table shows:

The share of admitted students from the top income quartile falls by about 12 percentage points.

But the shifts toward racial diversity are modest. The Black student share rises by just one percentage point. Why? Black families are over-represented among poorer households in America, but in terms of total numbers, there are still many more poorer white households.

For this reason, income is a relatively weak proxy for race in admissions. A preference for lower incomes produces just that: students with lower incomes, not necessarily a much larger share of Black or Hispanic students.

This is definitely a smaller impact than I would have expected. A 150 point SAT bonus is massive but barely moves the needle on racial makeup—a modest one-point increase for Black and Hispanic students. Upper quartile Whites take a significant hit but the benefits mostly go to poorer Whites.

So, they added another layer of boost.

Scenario 2 of 4: Adding school poverty

This scenario takes the 150-point income preference in Scenario 1 and adds a second 150-point preference for students in higher-poverty schools, as measured by the share of students in that school receiving free or reduced-price lunch. A low-income student in a high-poverty school could get as much as a 300-point boost.

This produces even more economic diversity than the preference for parental income alone. And it further nudges up the share of admitted Black and Hispanic students.

We know that students with equally low family incomes differ from each other in many ways. For example, low-income Black and Hispanic students are more likely than low-income white and Asian students to live in high-poverty neighborhoods and attend high-poverty schools.

And so if one goal of an admissions policy is to account for the compound disadvantages minority students often face, it may help to pull in more information: not just about their parents’ incomes, but also about their households, schools and neighborhoods.

Colleges could further hone a preference like this by pulling in more factors, including neighborhood poverty rates, parental education levels and parental wealth.

Do something like that, and “now you have a group of students who have overcome a lot more in life than the ones who have just been handed everything,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a researcher at the Progressive Policy Institute who has argued for this kind of robust class preference. He also served as an expert witness critiquing race-based admissions in the litigation that led to the Supreme Court decision.

On the one hand, you’re now really getting at a lot of what affirmative action was supposed to address, a boost to those who have been disadvantaged by our institutional design for generations. But even with a 300-point head start, the impact is modest: only three percent more Black students being offered a spot in the class.

So, they add another boost.

Scenario 3 of 4: Finding the outliers

Here, we’re not just giving a boost to students who come from disadvantage. We’re rewarding students who perform better academically than other students with similar backgrounds.

This strategy identifies, for example, a student who has an 1100 SAT score — but whose score is 250 points above the typical student who also goes to a high-poverty high school and who has low-income parents who didn’t attend college. This strategy also discounts some of the wealthiest students whose 1400 scores look less impressive when compared with their equally well-off peers.

Students who outperform their peers are academic outliers, and that may indicate something special about them: “We’re admitting students on the basis of striving: students whose academic achievement exceeded expectations based on the access to opportunity that they had,” said Zack Mabel, a Georgetown researcher who has modeled admissions scenarios similar in concept to this one.

Of the scenarios tested so far, this one does the most to produce both economic and racial diversity, compared with admitting students on test scores alone. It also produces significant shifts among high-income white students; their share of the admitted class is 27 percentage points lower than it would be in a test-only environment. The resulting average SAT score of the admitted class is also the lowest of the scenarios so far, at 1340.

So, we’ve now finally got a significant boost in Black offers. And a huge increase in Hispanic offers. This comes at a huge hit to upper-income Whites and a significant hit to upper-income Asians. Yes, the average SAT is now considerably lower but still above the 1300 floor.

In the last scenario, they go yet another step, adding candidates who aren’t even in the pool.

Scenario 4 of 4: Casting a wider net

To create this scenario, we expanded the pool of applicants to selective colleges by modeling a recruiting strategy targeted at predominantly minority high schools.

First, we pull into the applicant pool all students of any race with SAT scores above 1000 at high schools where at least three-quarters of students are nonwhite. Then we rerun the preference for beating the odds from Scenario 3 with this larger applicant pool.

Here, they’re arguably cheating. The whole premise of the experiment was to admit more Black and Hispanic students on an entirely race-blind basis. Now they’re factoring race in explicitly. That almost certainly won’t fly.

But it works!

This strategy most notably captures more Hispanic students, and it produces by far the biggest shift toward lower-income students. It broadly redistributes seats held in an SAT-only scenario by high-income white students and, to a lesser degree, high-income Asian ones.

This is indeed a radically more racially and economically diverse class. And they argue it’s legal:

Although colleges can no longer employ racial preferences in admissions, several legal scholars said they believe schools can still consider race in recruiting strategies. The Supreme Court, in turning away another recent legal challenge, has also signaled — at least for now — that it’s permissible for colleges to pursue diversity as an end goal so long as racial preferences aren’t the means to achieve it.

Of the scenarios we’ve shown, an expanded recruiting strategy requires the most work from colleges. But it’s also “the big overlooked gold mine here,” said Richard Sander, a law professor at U.C.L.A. who has worked on admissions strategies at the law school level.

Such a recruiting strategy would mean not just tweaking statistical preferences, but also building relationships with high school counselors, traveling to college fairs, and perhaps developing dual-enrollment courses that introduce high school students to college work.

This kind of outreach — “to me, it’s everything,” said Jill Orcutt, the global lead for consulting with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. She was previously the associate vice chancellor for enrollment at U.C. Merced, the most diverse school in the University of California system.

This would almost certainly be litigated because the intent here is obvious and the impact of the changes, given the zero-sum nature of admissions, is disparate, harming White and Asian applicants. But let’s say it’s legal. These schools are already going back to an SAT-heavy model because it’s costly and time-consuming to use other metrics. Scenarios 3 and 4 would seem to be incredibly labor-intensive—although it’s quite possible that this sorting could be outsourced and shared.

Additionally, we’ve added four layers of advantages to get these students into the class. Is that merely correcting from structural disadvantage? Or are we now admitting a larger share of students who aren’t academically ready?

Aside from the fact that almost all of our discussion about higher ed continues to be focused on the tiny handful of hyper-selective institutions, what’s interesting to me in all of this is that the Upshot gang is lumping “Black and Hispanic” together as a group, even though the considerations would seem wildly different. While I have no doubt that there’s a long history of discrimination against the subclass of Hispanic/Latino citizens who are non-White, they don’t share the history of slavery and Jim Crow with Blacks. (And even Black is fraught as a category, in that, there’s a real tension between the descendants of American slaves and more recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean on who should get access to these programs.) Every race-neutral criterion used here benefits Hispanics and lower-income Whites and Asians more than it does Blacks.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Monala says:

    I noted this statement:

    Or those who do relatively well academically despite challenges all around them?

    My African American daughter, the child of two college educated parents who lived a middle class existence for most of her life and attended a high quality suburban school district, is now a freshman at a prestigious Tier II university (Tier II is just below Ivy League). She was accepted into a competitive research program this semester, and a prestigious internship for the summer. Now, she’s very hardworking and driven, but as I read complaints from parents on her college’s parents Facebook page about their kids not getting such opportunities, I think it has to do with that statement.

    In her teen years, my daughter lost her dad, our house burned down, we ended up homeless for a while, then I got sick and ended up disabled. My daughter went from a comfortable middle class life to living just above the poverty level in an impoverished neighborhood (although she still attended the same suburban high school after I requested an out of district transfer). And all this happened while a global pandemic was raging, yet she managed to keep her grades up and scored well on the SAT.

    My daughter wrote about these challenges and how they motivate her in her essays for college admissions, and now for the additional opportunities she’s taking part in as a college student. And I realize that many of the students at her university aren’t likely to have personal stories as compelling as my daughter’s.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Sounds like your daughter is on her way. I’d bet on her. I love a good ‘rise above’ story. Overcoming makes you braver, stronger, less easily cowed. Seems she was very well parented. Kudos.

  3. Monala says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Thank you! Since you are someone who also had to “rise above,” I appreciate it!

  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    I’ve done pretty well for myself on a mix of raw aptitude, family privilege, and luck despite being pretty unmotivated and lazy (the gifted student to trans catgirl burnout pipeline is real!). I know a lot of people either smarter or harder working than me who are struggling.

    Someone shouldn’t need to be a three sigma person just to achieve a median lifestyle due to circumstances of birth, so while I’m glad to hear of your daughter’s success, I worry such stories often get reduced to an excuse for blaming anyone who’s not willing to “work twice as hard for half as much” for their predicament.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    only three percent more Black students being offered a spot in the class

    James, I think you are looking at this in the wrong way. In the college age demographic blacks are at 14%. If the total school population increases black students by 3%, that’s more than a 20% increase in the likelihood that a given black student will be admitted. That’s a big number.

    I think most Americans have a misunderstanding of the demographics of this country. The college age group is significantly more diverse than the country as a whole, but even so if you were to take four students from that group at random, the odds are that two will be white, one Hispanic, and the remaining student has varying odds of being one of every other ethnic group in the country. You would have to double the number of students to eight before you are more likely than not to have a black student among them.

  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    This study goes in the “who knew healthcare would be so hard?” file. Now as a working-class kid whose fortunes were raised into the middle class by having a working mom (thus approximately doubling the family income), I can see the argument from both sides. On one side, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that focusing on poverty alone can disproportionately benefit majority white populations because poverty is likely to be spread across all races such that even if fewer white children are trapped in poverty their sheer numbers as a percent of total population may still swamp the other cohorts, or at least balance out to redound to what we call “white privilege.”

    In my golden years, I’ve come to see that affirmative action–given the population weight of the majority cohort–of necessity meant deliberately putting the government’s thumb on the scale. It would appear that the majority cohort’s weight is still a significant enough factor for calls for removing the “thumb on the scale” to be premature. This may well still be a zero-sum economics question, but MarkedMan’s: observation is another factor to include in the calculation. And, indeed, the question of how much social and economic mobility is too much weighs heavily for one cohort in the discussion because there may well be some zero-sum factors in economic mobility. I didn’t study enough economics to know.

  7. Gromitt Gunn says:

    To further on to @MarkedMan:
    If you add up all of the plusses and minuses in each scenario, the end results is 0% shift in the overall population (accounting for rounding errors).

    So it’s not that the # of black students increased by 3%. It is that 3% of the incoming class that was white students is now black students. So the class of 500 would have 3% * 500 = 15 more black students in it than it would have before. If there were 50 total black students before, that would be a 30% increase in the number of black students, not a 3% one.

  8. Gustopher says:

    My proposal would be to add a new test, similar to the SAT, which tests knowledge of Black and Hispanic history in the US, and ends with an essay on Social Darwinism and phrenology (to give the most racist white kids every opportunity to let their hate show through).

    I’m not even sure you will have to grade the test, as a lot of white folks will self-select out, but assuming you do grade it and use that as a metric, you would end up with either a racially diverse group, or at least a better group.

    A complete purge on those who believe that the War of Northern Aggression was fought because of tariffs.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: @Gromitt Gunn: Right. The numbers are percentage increases the the portion of the selected body made up of Black and Hispanic kids, not the percentage increase in their number. Presumably, though, the intent would be to have the selected classes roughly comparable in number to that of the Black student pool and you don’t get there at all until you make the fourth adjustment.

  10. DrDaveT says:

    I had not heard of the “outlier” idea before, but I love it.

    I never had any problem with Affirmative Action precisely because the people it most disadvantaged — slightly above-average privileged whites — are the ones who benefit least from attending a selective school. They will end up in the same careers, and be basically just as successful, without that. For every one that would have had wider scope from the more selective school, there’s one that wasn’t ready for that kind of academic environment. Plus their absence from those schools neither abets nor undermines systemic racism. AA was actively (if slowly) doing something tangible to undo the cumulative effects of centuries of discrimination, with minimal negative impact on individuals and minimum negative impact on the potential of the best and brightest. Win/win.

    This point — that the people most harmed are not actually harmed much, if at all — is not one that you hear discussed much. I’d love to see a serious microeconomic study of exactly how much future income white male students at the margin lose for not getting into that selective school because of racial preferences. And compare that with the impact on the black students who get in due to racial preferences.

  11. Alex K says:

    One thing almost never considered that would also go a long way – simply expand the number of students enrolled. Elite schools – the Ivys in particular – have multi-billion dollar endowments that give them ample resources to teach more students. The scarcity here is almost entirely artificial.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: I do like the “outlier” concept as well in theory. Hard to execute but really seems to be aimed at finding the right student. What this study seems to show, though, is not that old-school race-based affirmative action mostly hurt rich White kids. It was almost certainly hurting poor White and Asian kids. It was always the marginal non-Black student who was hurt, not the ones at the top of the food chain. What I like about all of the treatments here was that they were all aimed specifically at helping those who are disadvantaged, regardless of their skin color.

    @Alex K: Quite right. It’s not just the Ivies but few of the selective schools, including the public ones, have expanded to keep up with the increased size of the population.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s not just the Ivies but few of the selective schools, including the public ones, have expanded to keep up with the increased size of the population.

    While I understand the intent, I’m not persuaded that expanding enrollment in a system that already produces more graduates than the employment infrastructure can absorb counts as a solution. But, given that, as a society, we’ve seemingly decided that college graduates–and only those who take programs that we approve of, for that matter–are the only ones deserving the economic rewards of an accessible American dream, laissez les bons temps roullez.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Bur we’re talking here about a handful of the most prestigious schools. There are more hyper qualified students for them then there are slots.

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner: I’m not persuaded that this situation hasn’t been the case for most of my lifetime. To some degree or another, elite schools have become “elite” by restricting access. And ultimately, adding access to elite schools for a those “hyper qualified” students you’re referring to probably doesn’t really address the diversity issue to begin with.

    I think that more hyper qualified students probably should be able to get into elite schools. The complaints about diversity and inclusion, though, usually center on the complaint that hyper qualified students are being replaced in the entering cohorts by ordinarily qualified students given an opportunity to have something they wouldn’t get access to otherwise. It’s a different question.

  16. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    It was almost certainly hurting poor White and Asian kids. It was always the marginal non-Black student who was hurt, not the ones at the top of the food chain.

    No, that was my point. It was denying those students admission, but it was not (as best I can tell) actually harming them. Those marginal non-Black students ended up in the same careers, with the same outcomes, as if they had been admitted to those more-selective schools. (On average.) Those marginal students were not going to be the ones to benefit from the networking, nor the improved high-end educational range. They didn’t need to go to selective schools to live the lives they were aimed at. In a sense, admissions slots used on them were wasted, from the point of view of the academy and the point of view of society.

    Happy to be proven wrong here by someone with actual data.

  17. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    But we’re talking here about a handful of the most prestigious schools.

    I thought we were talking about “selective” schools, in terms of admissions. There are waaaaay more of those than there are “the most prestigious schools”.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: Yes, they’re talking Barron’s Tier 1 schools—roughly 80 of them in the whole country. The Ivies, the service academies, a tiny handful of “public Ivies,” and a bunch of small liberal arts colleges. (Oddly, including Washington Theological Union, which I’d barely heard of and shuttered in 2015.)