Affirmative action within higher education admissions naturally generates controversy because preferential admission granted to one student results in the exclusion of another.
There is also the question of whether affirmative action may actually harm, rather than help, the supposed beneficiaries – creating a “mismatch” by prompting students to attend selective colleges for which they are inadequately prepared.
In the words of former associate justice of the US Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, students may find that “they're being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them”.
If mismatch is widespread, the rollback of affirmative action could mean intended beneficiaries will generally be better off, as will students who are currently displaced by affirmative action. Therefore, it’s important to know how prevalent this mismatch is.
Unfortunately, evaluation of mismatch in US colleges and universities is not easy. It is difficult to determine how affirmative action affects students' admission and college choice, since each institution has its own admission policies based on subjective factors (student interviews, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters and so on).
Credible comparison of academic outcomes across students is also problematic. For example, grading standards vary across faculties, departments and institutions, so grades and graduation rates are not comparable across colleges. Furthermore, information available for the study of affirmative action is often circumscribed; research typically uses limited information about the pool of applicants, or observes only a small number of colleges.
As in the US, Indian colleges often use affirmative action.
In India, women and students from disadvantaged castes receive preferential treatment. Unlike the US, the role of affirmative action in Indian admissions is quite transparent and educational standardisation allows a direct comparison of student outcomes. Therefore, Indian context provides a golden opportunity to study the impact of affirmative action.
In a recent study, we observed the entire applicant pool of 210 loosely affiliated engineering colleges that shared a common admission and student-evaluation system. For each applicant, we knew gender, caste and the score on an academic aptitude test, which combine to determine priority in admission, and were able to quantify whether an individual was advantaged or disadvantaged by affirmative action.
We tracked academic performance using results from externally administered exams and found affirmative action substantially increased college attendance among targeted students, and allowed those students to move up the college quality ladder – gains that came at the quantifiable expense of upper-caste men.
Affirmative action also improved academic performance of beneficiaries, which held for students in each of the 13 distinct gender/caste groups that were afforded increased priority in admission. Students from disadvantaged castes chose the most competitive engineering majors in higher proportions than other students. From our study, we determined that affirmative action neither improved nor adversely affected rates of on-time graduation.
We obtained a clear response to Justice Scalia’s concern: affirmative action does not give rise to mismatch.
Readers might ask whether our findings translate to the US context, and although we do not know, we believe the parallels are sufficiently strong as to cast serious doubt on the belief that affirmative action causes mismatch.
Based on our findings, we encourage policymakers to recognise the trade-offs inherent in decisions about affirmative action. A rollback in affirmative action will likely generate gains for some students while creating losses for others.
In the US and India, affirmative action enhances opportunities, but the choice of how to respond to those opportunities remains with the student. A student is not required to attend a highly selective college if admitted. When advancing diversity goals, we recommend that colleges and universities resist the temptation to attract students by creating false expectations about the ease of attaining academic excellence.
Student decisions should be based on fair and objective information about prospects for success.