Securing Wisconsin’s Future

September 17, 2011 | Blog

When my son was a baby, we used to visit storytime at the public library together. He loved it, crawling around the floor, mouthing the toys, nibbling on books. And I enjoyed it as well, particularly because of the social time I spent with other moms.

While this was a period in which I was on unpaid maternity leave from UW-Madison, and thus not actively teaching, when moms asked what I “did” I’d hesitantly reveal I was a professor. I got a lot of “oh wows” and “what’s that like?” and then after they learned about my field of expertise (higher education) I’d field many questions about how they were supposed to ever manage to get their kids into college. Their babies weren’t even yet one year old, but I was happy to answer. At the same time, I often felt an odd kind of guilt-—I was acutely aware that this wasn’t something I really had to worry about. My son was college-bound from the time he was conceived. Some of those other kids and their moms were going to have to really work at it.

Maternal education is one of the strongest predictors of children’s outcomes. If your mom finished a bachelor’s degree rather than only a high school diploma you are more than twice as likely to earn one yourself. This is partly but not entirely because moms with college degrees are much more likely to have good jobs and enjoy full employment, and thus are more able to afford college. But there are other reasons as well. College-educated parents (and this includes dads, who are incredibly important but less-often the primary caregiver) engage with their differently from the beginning. They obtain higher-quality prenatal care, are more likely able to spend time with their newborns given their more flexible and higher-paid employment, and they are fortunate enough to have the time to invest much more of their energy in endowing their kids with large vocabularies and enrichment activities that result in measurable advantages in test scores, even as early as kindergarten.

Most if not all children have kind and loving parents who take care of them, keep them safe, play with them, etc. But the kinds of things highly educated parents can buy and do with their children seem to provide a boost that’s very hard to match. (Schools, so far, don’t seem up to the herculean task.)

Since colleges and universities have raised tuition far more often than governments have increased financial aid, a college education remains a difficult, expensive thing to procure in this country. Attendance is increasingly predicated on the level of education and wealth in your family—yes, that relationship is stronger now than ever. In this country, in statistical terms, people from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds have less of everything required for college—less wealth with which to buy homes near the best schools or purchase for test prep and tuition, less educational background to utilize when sifting through potential colleges, completing applications, and filling out FAFSAs, less job security on which to rely when it comes to taking time off for college visits. The list goes on. Those facts alone mean that the chances of obtaining a bachelor’s degree are far, far less for Black, Latino, Native, and Southeast Asian children than for other children, especially if their parents don’t have college degrees—and very often, they don’t. The chance that a black student will attend college increases from 46% if his parents only attended high school to 84% if his parents graduated from college. But only 10.7% of blacks in Wisconsin hold bachelor’s degrees. Thus the cycle is long and vicious.

Many opponents of affirmative action want to ignore these facts. They want to pretend that it’s possible to compare black and white student with similar test scores, and test for “fairness” based on who is admitted. Sure, admitting a black student with a test score that is lower than that of a “comparable” white student seems unfair, but only if you insist on pretending that life begins when students file admissions applications. It is clearly eminently fair when you realize the incredible odds that most minority students had to beat in order to arrive at that same point of application, compared to the odds that most white students faced. The odds a person beat can provide important context that captures the unmeasured attributes of individuals. Admissions officers seek to admit the students most likely to benefit from and succeed in their universities. Perseverance, stamina, a family’s investment in a student’s success—all of these things are difficult to document and demonstrate in admissions files, but they enhance a student’s chances of success. Picking “winners” requires trying to include those unmeasurable factors when making decisions. Race is a proxy, and for now, the best one we’ve got.

Of course not all minority students would agree that they faced down long odds to get to the point of applying to college. Some are the children of doctors and lawyers who own their own homes and always expected their kids to get a college degree. Some blacks, like some whites, were born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple. But overwhelmingly, this is not the case. In contrast, it is far, far more common for white students to have not faced down long odds to get to the same point. This is because, as Mitchell Stevens has written, “the organizational systems that deliver students to the point of selective college entrance remain structured in ways that systematically favor white and Asian American applicants over black and Latino ones.” And that matters. Stevens reports, “as copious scholarship makes clear, black and Latino students remain considerably less likely to become candidates for admission at the nation’s most prestigious schools than their presence in the general population would have us expect.”

The goal of affirmation action is to create an opportunity for deserving kids who haven’t had the opportunities they deserve. If we refused to use a proxy like race for “deserving but often denied opportunities” we would have to collect extensive personal information that nearly everyone would object to providing. Applications would quadruple in length, and admit rates would drop because there would be even more incomplete applications. If we instead decided not to bother using either a proxy or such intense data collection to facilitate the provision of such opportunities, the average value of the college degree would likely decline, a larger fraction of Wisconsin’s population would remain mired in poverty, and there would be no hope of ever not needing programs like affirmative action.

So yes, it is tempting to think that starting college is the beginning point of life—-the point at which all can be fairly determined by a single test score. But college applicants are not born; they are raised. As Stevens says they are “delivered to the point of application by social systems that send children from different groups to this particular destination at different rates.” Pretending that the road to college is race-neutral is to close one’s eyes to the realities of daily existence in the United States. Acknowledging the role that race plays in structuring opportunity, and attempting to reduce the influence of race on those opportunities is not racism—and no, it is not reverse discrimination. Racism is assuming and acting like the color of one’s skin is inherently inferior, rather than acknowledge the problem lies in the way society treats the color of one’s skin. Those who seek to level the playing field do so by explicitly acknowledging that the trouble isn’t that someone is brown, it’s that brown people are treated terribly in this country. It’s far harder to admit that and seek to do something about it, than to deny reality and cry racism.

Those seeking to end affirmative action at UW-Madison need to remember these facts. There is an enormous payoff to a state’s investment in educating its minority students at its finest schools. Research demonstrates that admitting black students to more selective schools improves their chances of finishing college—not the opposite—and furthermore, these students generate bigger individual and social returns from their college degrees than do students whose college attendance is far more expected and much easier to obtain.

Furthermore, supporting affirmative action does not equate with supporting the denial of opportunities for white students. Far from it. This is a case where the benefits for minorities are large, and the costs for individual white students are very, very small. College opportunities abound for majority students, who attend college at very high rates and appear to succeed in completing degrees almost no matter where they attend. Denial from one college nearly always results in admission at another. Data from Wisconsin show that not attending one’s top choice college and instead attending another appears to have little to no impact on whether a student enjoys in and excels at college. In contrast, the great threat to ending affirmative action is that minority students will attain far fewer college degrees. And that would undoubtedly threaten the economic security of our state. None of our families can afford that risk.


  1. Reply


    September 17, 2011

    Out of curiosity, are there data to show that ending affirmative action lowers the chance that students helped by it will go to college?

  2. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    September 17, 2011


    Very good question. The evidence is mixed on whether ending affirmative action will adversely effect whether a student will ever attend college (broadly construed-college anywhere) but it is much more firm that affirmative action bans have deleterious effects on the college choices of minority students--particularly the choice to attend selective institutions, where their chances of graduation are the highest. This makes sense, since affirmative action operates at selective institutions, not at non-selective ones--so what you'd expect is a shifting downwards, towards schools where graduation rates are lower. Here are some studies to consider:

    (1) A 2009 study published in the Journal of Public Economic Theory found that ending affirmative action would result in a 35 percent drop in the enrollment of students from underrepresented minority groups at the most competitive colleges.

    (2) A brand new national study by Peter Hinrichs of Georgetown University, forthcoming in the Review of Economics and Statistics, finds that while bans don't appear to change average choices for average students, the effects are particularly large at selective public universities like UW-Madison. Hinrichs finds that "banning affirmative action at a public university in the top 50 of the U.S. News rankings is associated with a decrease in black enrollment of roughly 1.74 percentage points, a decrease in Hispanic enrollment of roughly 2.03 percentage points, and a decrease in Native American enrollment of roughly .47 percentage points. The shares of students at these universities who are black, Hispanic, and Native American are 5.79%, 7.38%, and .51%. Thus, the changes in representation caused by affirmative action bans are very large in relative terms. Banning affirmative action at these universities is also associated within white enrollment of roughly 2.93 percentage points and an increase in Asian enrollment of roughly 1.43 percentage points."

    In a related study, Hinrichs found that numbers of black and Latino graduates from the top universities also decline at selective schools with affirmative action bans, a direct consequence of declining minority enrollment.

    (3) Studies of the affirmative action bans in Texas and California also find that chances for college graduation among minority students was harmed by both bans. For example, studies by Marta Tienda and her colleagues at Princeton find that the freshmen retention rates and six-year graduation rates of lower-ranked minority students have declined by 2 to 5 percent as a result of being shuffled from Texas’ flagships to its less selective colleges.

    A comparison of application rates before and after Texas's ban went into place indicates that the state’s flagships are now losing nearly 7,000 potential black and Latino applicants annually.

    The effects of the ban in CA was similarly chilling. In 1994 under affirmative action, 38 percent of high school graduates and 18 percent of University of California students were African American, Latino or Native American. In 2008, after a decade with the ban, these minorities represented nearly half of high school graduates but only 20 percent of UC students.

    (4) Another study that projects the effects of national bans on affirmative action, published in the Journal of Labor Economics, finds that a nationwide ban on affirmative action in college admissions would cause a 10 percent drop in black and Hispanic enrollment at the nation's most selective colleges and universities. Overall black and Hispanic representation in four-year institutions would decline by two percent.

  3. Reply

    Jason Pickart

    September 20, 2011

    "Of course not all minority students would agree that they faced down long odds to get to the point of applying to college. Some are the children of doctors and lawyers who own their own homes and always expected their kids to get a college degree. Some blacks, like some whites, were born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple. But overwhelmingly, this is not the case."

    Here's what I see as the problem with affirmative action and why it should take a backseat to a more class based approach to the problem that ignores skin color altogether. Let's say you theoretically pursue a policy of affirmative action to the point that you are able to successfully produce a far larger number of minorities with college degrees than the previous generation. Now the number of minorities who have college degrees and who can give their children all of its incumbent advantages has increased to the point that drawing a clear connection between race and economic/educational opportunity becomes harder. No longer are economically blessed minority children an "overwhelming" exception, but they are actually a sizable minority and perhaps even at a similar, if not equal, level to whites.

    So at this point, what do you do? Do you take away affirmative action, claiming that its goals have been met? There would doubtless be extreme resistance to this from groups like the NAACP, and change of any kind is difficult. So now you have a situation where there are multiple minority children who are in fact getting an unfair advantage in the admissions process, which is to the detriment of everyone involved in academia and the wider world, especially since it rightfully breeds resentment towards minorities from whites.

    In short, affirmative action, like any policy based merely on the color on one's skin, is inherently flawed, and its problems are brought out to the extreme when you consider what the end goal of such a policy produces. Even when you don't consider a hypothetical such as the one above, it's still grossly unfair that, for example, a black student whose parents are lawyers gets an advantage over a white student whose parents are factory workers. Class based admissions policies are not flawed in this same manner however, as they ignore skin color. If you institute a class based policy of admissions it will also disproportionally help minority groups like blacks and Hispanics in its early stages since these groups are much poorer economically than whites. But the beauty is that when this economic gap starts to disappear between racial groups, there is no comparable problem that you face with affirmative action. There is also no inherent unfairness to the policy -- a black student doesn't get a leg up in the admissions process simply for being black, only if he is a disadvantaged background that is separate from his skin color.

  4. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    September 20, 2011


    While class-based affirmative action might feel more palatable to many, especially white Americans, the fact is that its effects do not in any way duplicate those of race-based affirmative action. Meaning, it does not result in racially diverse institutions. As we have both pointed out, a fair proportion of racial minorities would not benefit under a class-based policy, while many, many whites would. The result would be increasing socioeconomic diversity at the expense of racial diversity. While I am a strong proponent of increasing socioeconomic diversity on campuses, I do not believe it is a substitute for racial diversity. (And empirical work linked to in my post proves this-- take a look at the Texas research for example.)

    The hypothetical scenario you play out, where the policy works so well that the proportion of minorities with college degrees approximates the proportion of whites with college degrees is indeed hypothetical. That is a very long way from the world in which we live. (Play with this fun map to prove it to yourself--look at Dane County, for example, where 45% o f whites have college degrees compared to 18% of blacks. ) If we got to the world you envision, then yes, affirmative action based on race might no longer be needed--and that is precisely why the Supreme Court's Sandra Day O'Connor suggested we revisit the issue in 25 years. No policy is forever-- they are all intended to serve specific needs at specific times.

    Your statements in the last paragraph neglect the highly temporary nature of the wealth of black folk. You assume that the black parent who is a lawyer has the same job security and family wealth to provide security for his family that a comparable white lawyer has. Rigorous social science research disputes your claim, documenting extensive workplace discrimination and vast inequities in wealth accumulation and maintenance. In fact, during the Great Recession blacks lost half of their wealth and Hispanics lost 2/3rds of their wealth while whites lost far less, creating the greatest disparity in black/white wealth in 25 years.

    As I wrote in the post, what is "inherently unfair" as you put it is that being born black in this country results in systematically differential treatment throughout a person's life. The nation discriminates based on skin color every day. Affirmative action acknowledges that fact and tries to do something about it. If you could develop a viable alternative with comparable results, I'd love to hear it.

  5. Reply

    Nick Strohl

    September 21, 2011

    The above discussion is a good one. I would simply add that beyond the questions of “fairness” and access for under-represented groups—both very important—lies the question of how the changes proposed by those who say race should not be a consideration in admissions would affect UW-Madison more broadly. Such a discussion seems pertinent in light of last year’s debates over the New Badger Partnership and the expressed desire, from a number of corners, that Madison remain a nationally and globally competitive university.

    We know from a number of studies and observations, including those cited above by Dr. Goldrick-Rab, that admissions processes which do not consider race as one of many factors in selection have led to a drop in minority enrollment, most notably at the most prestigious universities (remember, also, that this is a drop in enrollment among groups which are already under-represented to begin with). What would such a drop mean at an institution like UW-Madison? I can hypothesize/speculate about several possible effects.

    First, decreased minority enrollment would no doubt make UW-Madison less appealing and attractive for prospective minority applicants, including the “best and brightest” from Wisconsin and beyond. Potentially vibrant campus leaders, especially those interested in promoting cross-cultural dialogue among the student community, would likely look to other prestigious schools with more opportunities for such activities. That African-American valedictorian from the Milwaukee area who may have a Nobel prize in her future might be more likely to prefer a school like Yale or Harvard, rather than staying in state.

    Second, it is just as likely, I would submit, that a significant number of the “best and brightest” prospective white and Asian students from Wisconsin and beyond would see UW-Madison as a less attractive place to attend. It should be no surprise that top college applicants look to elite schools not only for excellent academic opportunities but also opportunities to learn beyond the classroom. Top students of all races who seek to be leaders, whether in business, academia, politics, etc., appreciate and seek out the opportunity to attend a college campus where they can learn as much from interacting with their peers as they do in the classroom. And this means a diverse set of peers from a range of backgrounds.

    Thirdly, it also seems likely that a drop in minority enrollment would make UW-Madison a less attractive place for top professors who want to work with the “best and brightest” students. For the reasons cited above, top professors who want to teach, mentor and guide top undergraduates would be less attracted to an institution that did not attract the best and brightest to come study there. (Part 1 --see next post)

  6. Reply

    Nick Strohl

    September 21, 2011

    (Part 2 -- continued)

    Lastly, I’ve put in quotes the phrase “best and brightest” above because the goal of a holistic admissions process is to find those very students. The premise of a holistic admissions process is simple: it is to evaluate the promise and potential of a given applicant based on his/her achievements in the context of the opportunities he/she has been given up to this point in life, as well as the consideration of how the applicant’s abilities, goals, and interests fit with the resources available on UW-Madison’s campus. These are very often students WITHOUT the best test scores or GPA (although in some cases they are). Simply put, a holistic admissions process which is not allowed to consider race as one of many factors in the selection criteria does not allow admissions officers to do their job in selecting the “best and brightest” for UW-Madison. It would be just as silly as not being able to consider the high school a student attended or whether the student’s parents possessed advanced degrees. Such details might not have much bearing on the success of any one application, but all are important in making a decision of what a student might be able to contribute to this campus.

    So, it seems worth considering what makes a university attractive to the best students and scholars around Wisconsin and around the country. The most prestigious schools in the country pursue admissions policies which aim to create diverse classes of students who all contribute something unique and different to the campus environment. This is an acknowledgement that college, for those who attend it, a REAL community where classroom learning is a small part of the overall experience. I, for one, would hope that UW-Madison would aim for an admissions process that also acknowledges that fact.

    It’s important to keep in mind that while this line of reasoning does not touch upon the strong MORAL reasons for affirmative action (many of which are referred to above), it does seek to put the question of admissions criteria in a larger political context. That is, there are a number of greater benefits that accrue from the consideration of race beyond those of any specific application or individual student.

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