Chilling or Warming Effects of Affirmative Action Bans?

As we await the Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark Fisher v. University of Texas case, an intense and polarized debate has arisen about whether bans on affirmative action such as California’s Proposition 209 have had a chilling or a warming effect on minority student enrollment. In 1996, Proposition 209 in California, also known as the California Civil Rights Initiative, amended the state constitution through a ballot proposition and prohibited governmental agencies and public institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in employment, contracting or admissions.

Papers offered at the Brookings Institution in September 2012 presented one side of the debate. A presentation by Kate Antonovics, an economist at the University of California at San Diego and Richard Sander, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles, asserted that Prop 209 had a “warming” effect on the enrollment of underrepresented minority students. Their analysis is based upon yield rates and they conclude that affirmative action increased the likelihood of minority students accepting admissions offers. (Yield rates refer to the percentage of students who choose to enroll in a university or college after having been offered admission).

These researchers also offered support for a controversial theory called “mismatch.” Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., a former New York Times Supreme Court reporter, have been the primary proponents for this theory that argues that racial preferences for blacks offered by certain tiers of schools below the elite tier result in “mismatch” or the unintended side effect of driving students with weaker academic preparation than their classmates to drop out of school and abandon their career aspirations.

Yet a recent empirical study by Peter Arcidiacono and his colleagues at Duke University reaches a different conclusion regarding the effect of Proposition 209. These researchers found that college enrollment rates of African Americans and Hispanics in California’s 4-year public colleges actually declined after the Proposition’s implementation. The data set used to derive these results was not based upon yield rates, but rather upon enrollment data from IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) coupled with data provided by the University of California Office of the President on parental income and education, high school GPAs and SAT scores that allowed the researchers to control for these variables.

Two-thirds of the enrollment decrease reported by Arcidiacono and others came from the California State University System (CSU). Yet, surprisingly, the authors describe the CSU system as consisting “primarily of non-selective institutions.” Would it not be significant that institutions that have traditionally served a greater proportion of minority populations have had a decline in minority enrollment post-Prop 209? And while the CSU may be less selective than the UC, the excellence of the CSU institutions has long been recognized by college rankings. For example, U.S. News and World Report’s selected California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo as the best public master’s university in the West for 17 years in a row. In reporting the findings on the decline in minority enrollment, Arcidiacano and his co-researchers hypothesize that CSU’s simultaneous implementation of Executive Order 665 requiring all incoming freshmen to take the English Placement and Entry Level Mathematics tests “may have deterred enrollments in the CSU system, especially among minorities” (p. 14).

Different evidence is offered for the “chilling” effect of bans on affirmative action by William C. Kidder at the University of California at Riverside. In “Misshaping the River: Proposition 209 and Lessons from the Fisher Case”, Kidder presents survey data from 9750 Latino and African American students at eight UC campuses. This data indicates that the campus racial climate has become significantly more inhospitable for these students than at UT Austin and two other peer universities. The perception of a “chilly climate” has resulted from the affirmative action ban and low diversity that have led students to believe that they are less respected by their peers. In a recent paper titled, “The Salience of Racial Isolation” Kidder also presents directly conflicting evidence on yield rates, indicating that the percentage of African Americans accepting admissions offers has declined, with some instances of zero yield rates to top UC universities.

The conflicting analyses presented by scholars on both sides of the affirmative action debate call for continuing review. The results of the survey of campus climate at the University of California indicating perceptions of a “chilly” environment for minority students seem especially significant, as universities seek to build inclusive and welcoming campuses in the face of legal challenges.