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Mark C. Long, University of Washington
Evans School of Public Affairs

Is There a “Workable” Race-Neutral Alternative to Affirmative Action in College Admissions?

October 2, 2014 10:00 AM

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified when and how it is legally permissible for universities to use an applicant’s race or ethnicity in its admissions decisions. The court concluded in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin that such use is permitted when “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.” However, replacing traditional affirmative action policies with a system that uses an applicant’s predicted likelihood of being an underrepresented minority as a proxy for their actual status can yield a class with a lower predicted grade point average. As a result, such race-neutral alternatives may not be workable from the university’s perspective.

In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Professor Mark C. Long of the  University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs looks at the Supreme Court’s decision and what “workable race-neutral alternatives” means in a legal sense—and if universities are likely to find race-neutral alternatives. His paper, Is There a “Workable” Race-Neutral Alternative to Affirmative Action in College Admissions?, concludes that it isn’t possible to replace traditional race-based affirmative action with an admissions system that places weight on non-racial student characteristics. Long’s article is currently available to the public at WileyOnline through the end of October 2014.

Long’s research examines the effects of public policies (particularly education policy) on economic opportunity and efficient social mobility, with emphasis on estimating the benefits and costs of those policies. He previously served as an assistant professor at George Washington University and has been published in several journals, including Public Administration Review, American Educational Research Journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, andEducational Researcher.

“The problem is that characteristics that ‘proxy’ for minority status are often weekly correlated with minority status and placing weight on these characteristics tends to lower the academic quality of the admitted class,” says Long. “From a legal point of view, the terms ‘race-neutral’ and ‘alternative’ are seemingly incompatible.”

Long contends that if the university purposely uses such a proxy-based admissions system, intended to have an effect on the racial composition of admitted students, then from a legal viewpoint that system might be deemed ‘race-conscious’ rather than ‘race-neutral’—even if the student’s race is not directly used in the decision. “This tension was recognized in Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in the Fisher case: ‘I have said before and reiterate here that only an ostrich could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious…As Justice Souter observed, the vaunted alternatives suffer from the disadvantage of deliberate obfuscation.’”

Through careful analysis of the University of Texas’s admissions data, Long finds that a proxy-based system would modestly lower both the predicted GPAs and collegiate success of admitted students. “Whether this is a large enough cost to the university to be deemed not ‘workable’ is unclear,” says Long, “and would likely vary from university-to-university and court-to-court.” Currently, there is sufficient lack in court precedents to evaluate whether such a policy alternative would be seen as requiring the university to choose between maintaining its reputation or committing to providing educational opportunities to members of all racial groups.


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