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Ask the Expert

You’ve studied bans on the use of affirmative action in admissions to public universities. What have you found? ​

As appeared in the Cleveland Fed Digest's Ask the Expert

One result I’ve found that may not be entirely obvious to people is that affirmative action bans don’t generally have effects on whether people go to college. So it’s not the case that if a state bans affirmative action, lots of people will be shut out. It’s that they go to different colleges than they may have otherwise. In general, when a state bans the use of affirmative action in admissions to public universities, what happens is that underrepresented minority students, meaning black, Hispanic, or Native American students, tend to cascade down from more selective colleges to slightly less selective colleges.

My more recent work has studied the effects of affirmative action bans on racial segregation across colleges. People have a loose idea of what segregation is, but when doing research like this, we need to be precise. I use standard segregation indexes in order to quantify the extent to which members of different groups are attending different schools from each other.

A lot of people would think that if you ban affirmative action, it will lead to more segregation. That’s what I’ve found in some cases, but in others, it appears that banning affirmative action actually reduces segregation. In some states, like California, for example, the place where minority students are missing the most is not at the very high end of the college quality spectrum, but it’s slightly below that. So what affirmative action bans do in some cases is shift minority students from the high end to places that had low minority representation before, thus evening out minority representation across schools.

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