Is U.C.L.A. Illegally Using Race-Based Affirmative Action in Admissions?

My friend and co-author Tim Groseclose, a professor of political science at U.C.L.A., thinks so.

Groseclose was a member of U.C.L.A.’s Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations With Schools until yesterday, when he resigned from the committee in a very public way and released an 89-page report documenting what he calls “malfeasance” and an “accompanying cover-up.”

The gist of Groseclose’s allegations is that Proposition 209 prohibits public institutions in California from considering race, sex, or ethnicity, but that U.C.L.A. nonetheless uses such information in admissions decisions.

My understanding is that the admissions form itself doesn’t include the applicant’s race, but that minority students increasingly use their essays to signal their race to the people evaluating the applications — and those readers then make race one of the factors they use in making choices. Groseclose asked U.C.L.A. to provide him data so he could test this hypothesis; they refused.

The Groseclose report makes for interesting reading. I suspect he is right that U.C.L.A. has put into place mechanisms that lead race to influence admissions decisions. Indeed, it seems that the adoption of the “holistic” approach to judging applications was designed precisely to accomplish that goal, as David Leonhardt has written about previously.

Statistics suggest the holistic approach did lead to a big jump in enrollment by African-Americans at U.C.L.A., which was accompanied by a sharp decline in the S.A.T. scores of the African-American students admitted.

I don’t know enough about the specifics to want to take sides in this argument.

On the one hand, I personally am a strong proponent of class-based affirmative action in education (as opposed to strictly race-based affirmative action).

My own experiences lead me to believe that if two kids have identical test scores, high school grades, etc., then the less privileged of the two has accomplished more and has greater long-term potential. Class-based affirmative action helps create equality of opportunity, in my opinion, and I think that is a goal worth pursuing. (Plus, I just like underdogs.)

I also favor class-based affirmative action over race-based affirmative action because the minority students who benefit the most from race-based affirmative action more often than not come from privileged backgrounds. The African-American kids in the toughest neighborhoods can’t compete with affluent African-Americans any more than they can with affluent whites.

On the other hand, California voters passed a referendum saying that race shouldn’t be used in admissions. Even though I don’t agree with that law, it is nonetheless the law.

Although this is, of course, a very serious issue, there is a bit of comic relief starting on page 82 of Groseclose’s report, when the transcript of a meeting shows Groseclose trying to use Freakonomics to persuade the committee of what should be done:

INSERT DESCRIPTIONTaken from the Groseclose report.

He does not meet with much success.

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  1. misterb says:

    Dr. Levitt,

    I agree completely with your distinction between race and class in modifying selection criteria. It’s well and simply stated above. I wonder if this concept isn’t more popular because of America’s aversion to discussing class – and the sensitivities of those who might not want to be branded “lower” class.

    Unfortunately, changing the beneficiaries of selection bias, even in such an easily defensible way, means disenfranchising the advocates for the currently protected groups. Not only would you have to coalesce a movement around an uncomfortable concept, but you’d have to do over the objections of those currently in place.

    Such tends to be the fate of good ideas.

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  2. Brooke says:

    The idea of affirmative action of any kind makes me uncomfortable. I have no problems with schools establishing (or working with foundations to establish) scholarship for qualified students who might not be able to afford education, but I don’t think schools should go out of their way to recruit members of certain groups.

    If the allegations in this report are true, then UCLA has some serious explaining to do.

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  3. Speedmaster says:

    They often say they don’t, then do it anyway with some tortured logic and explanation.

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  4. Alfred says:

    I agree–class-based affirmative action is preferable to race-base affirmative action, considering that at many “elite” schools little class diversity exists.

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  5. Captain Obviousness says:

    The liberal elite running most universities will always do what they think is best. They don’t care what the law is or what the voters say. Voters are nothing but racist ignorant uneducated simpletons in their view.

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  6. tungbo says:

    It is unclear how such racial preference can be proven from a review of the essay, unless the student explicitly writes, “I am …”. More likely, the student might talk about experiences such as Driving While Blakc or experince of being marginalized. Even if one can prove a correlation of preference to such discussion, it is unclear how to extend that inference to a racial one.

    Perhaps a more interesting topic is how Tim Groseclose think the admission process should be run?

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  7. Tony Glover says:

    A study released by the Civil Rights Project discovered the following three very disturbing facts:

    1) In the United States, about one of every six black students and one of every nine Latino students attend what have been dubbed “apartheid schools” — elementary and high schools where the student body is at least 99 percent minority.

    2) In big cities, black and Latino students are nearly twice as likely to attend such schools.

    3) Some two-thirds of black and Latino students in big cities attend schools with less than 10 percent white students.

    Given the above, it is amazing that social conservatives continue to attack affirmative action and ballot measures continue to allow citizens to vote their bigotry in the guise of “race neutral” practices.

    America has never been race neutral. Systematically, the country, for centuries allowed slavery, Jim Crowism, and legal segregation to exclude Blacks from education.

    truly is amazing that colleges, be they in California, or elsewhere will not take pro-active steps to desegregate college campuses in the United States of America.

    Under the guise of being “race-neutral” too many now use laws that were designed to ameliorate racism and its effects to now exclude Blacks and other racial minorities from higher education.

    Hooray for UCLA for recognizing that it’s imperative that ways be found to continue offering opportunity to African Americans, Latinos and other minorities who from the earliest ages are locked out of a chance at any semblance of an adequate education.

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    • M says:

      Unfortunately I gave your post a thumbs up. Oops! You are correct that many colleges will not take proactive steps to desegregate their campuses. That would happen naturally if they did not purposefully work to segregate thier campuses with minority specific dorms and separate graduations (Princeton U 1999). These univerisities tout their racial diversity rankings, but actively work to counteract diversity on their campi.

      Racial Affirmative Action hides the real problem, our failing public schools. How does affirmative action even help underperforming students excel in high education when they do not have a good foundational education? They flunk out.

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  8. dfreelon says:

    I don’t see how race could ever be completely ruled out as a factor in admissions one way or the other. As Roland Fryer has documented (and as the authors of this blog are well aware), certain names can very strongly evoke associated racial and economic categories, indelibly inserting said categories into the readers’ list of pluses and minuses. Regardless of the presence of “mechanisms” that supposedly lead admissions committees to illegally take account of race, it’s probably impossible to ensure that they never do so.

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