How much affirmative action for college and law school admissions is appropriate? Your answer to this question likely hinges on your justifications for affirmative action and the affirmative action tools you regard as appropriate. But no matter what your justification or preferred method, you likely agree that there is some optimum level of affirmative action. I assume for the purposes of this article that affirmative action has merit and that the optimum level of affirmative action is a non-zero boost for ethnic minorities.
For example, you may feel that institutions ought to give ethnic minorities a twenty percent boost. In other words, an optimum affirmative action regime would make a minority applicant twenty percent more likely to be admitted than her nonminority counterpart. And colleges, universities, businesses, and fellowships should use quotas, plus factors, guaranteed admission by high school achievement, etc. to attain these optimal levels of boost.
But how do you measure when you've succeeded at achieving this optimum boost? Consider a hypothetical student, who I will call Todd:
Todd is a minority student applying to prestigious high schools like Pencey Prep, an affirmative action institution. These schools have demanding admissions standards and require high standardized test scores. Admission is not guaranteed. Todd may be qualified for Pencey and might have been accepted even if Pencey were not an affirmative action institution. But we cannot know that for certain.
When he graduates Pencey, Todd will apply to college. Pencey has a very high placement rate at top colleges which makes it more likely that Todd gets into his dream college, the prestigious Hillman College, than if he attended a less prestigious high school, say the one he might have gone to had Pencey not used affirmative action. But Todd has another advantage. Because most of the top colleges are affirmative action institutions that take ethnic background into account when making admissions decisions, Hillman College is more likely to accept Todd. Todd may be qualified for Hillman and might have been accepted even if Hillman were not an affirmative action institution. But we cannot know that for certain.
At college, Todd will apply for a prestigious education grant, the Roady Scholarship. Hillman has a very high placement rate with the Roady Scholarship which makes it more likely that Todd will achieve his goal than if he had gone to a less well-known college. Todd would also be Pencey's fourth ever Roady Scholar. Thus, Todd is taking advantage of his cumulative boosts from Pencey and Hillman in his application. But Todd has another advantage. The committee that awards the Roady Scholarship takes ethnic background into account when making its decisions. We cannot say that Todd would not have gotten the Roady Scholarship without the affirmative action boost, but we do know that considerations of ethnic background could only have helped Todd.
After he graduates Hillman and completes his Roady Scholarship, Todd will apply to law school. Todd wants to go to Harrison University Law School. Roady Scholars are typically a shoe-in for Harrison's prestigious law program. Thus, Todd is taking advantage of his cumulative boosts from Pencey, Hillman, and Roady when he applies. But Todd has another advantage. Harrison Law is an affirmative action institution that takes ethnic background into account when making admissions decisions. Todd may be qualified for Harrison Law and might have been accepted even if Harrison Law were not an affirmative action institution. But we cannot know that for certain.
At Harrison, Todd petitions for membership on the Harrison Law Review, a prestigious student-run law journal whose editors have historically had decorated careers in business, law, and public service. The Harrison Law Review is Todd's best shot at distinguishing himself from his highly accomplished peers in law school. Admission to the Harrison Law Review is based on grades, a grueling editing competition, and, yes, ethnic background because the law journal is an affirmative action institution. Todd may be qualified for the Harrison Law Review and might have been accepted even if the journal were not an affirmative action institution. But we cannot know that for certain.
Todd applies to a job at a prestigious international law firm. His resume shouts accomplishments. He went to Pencey, Hillman, and Harrison, was a Roady Scholar and is an editor on the Harrison Law Review. Todd is probably going to get the job. But Todd has another advantage. The prestigious law firm is an affirmative action institution that takes race into account in its hiring decisions. Todd may be qualified for the job even without the boost. But we cannot know that for certain.
After a few years at the firm, Todd receives a call from an old friend from Pencey who is now serving in the Senate. Would Todd like to be nominated for a federal judgeship? The old friend explains that Todd is one of many qualified candidates being considered and that his sterling resume and record at the prestigious firm qualify him for the job. But there is something else, the friend explains, the President wants to nominate more minority judges. Todd may very well be qualified for the judgeship even without the President's goal but we cannot know that for certain.Although Todd is a hypothetical character, his trajectory illustrates an important point. At each stage in his career, affirmative action institutions gave more weight to his application than they would if he were not an ethnic minority. The result is that Todd may have received a much more substantial boost for his status as an ethnic minority than you deemed was appropriate after reading the first paragraph.
The Affirmative Action Multiplier produces a few important consequences. First, the multiplier makes it difficult for ethnic minorities to reliably measure their accomplishments and to take pride in their successes. Because the boost is iterative, individuals are left to doubt just how much of their many accomplishments is due to their ethnic minority status. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for example, who attended Princeton and Yale Law School in generation zero of affirmative action writes in her memoir about the self-doubt that accompanied her successes in part because she could not know how much of it was due to affirmative action. Other prominent, highly educated leaders who should derive every confidence from their accomplishments likely also suffer from these image problems. How can you know how you measure up when you've been competing from an ever-increasing, though incalculable advantage?
Second, the multiplier makes it more difficult for employers to evaluate the skill of job applicants. Employers have to predict the skill of prospective employees based on limited information and a resume is an important piece of that picture. Errors in predicting the skill of prospective employees can be very costly so employers will try to avoid those mistakes. But we certainly do not want employers to apply any kind of discounting to "price out" the Affirmative Action Multiplier by raising the hiring standards for minority job applicants. So how can employers know which resume is the best when they make hiring decisions? How can employers get reliable information about applicants when some applicants' accomplishments have been regularly inflated through the Affirmative Action Multiplier?
Third, the multiplier may work against those affirmative action is intended to benefit. For example, imagine that Todd was on the margin or below the admission threshold at each stage of his career and that affirmative action propelled him over the edge. There will come a point when Todd no longer receives any boost but he is expected to do work for which he is qualified by his superlative resume. Todd will likely fall short of his supervisors' elevated expectations and may not advance in his career because of those expectations. As a result, Todd may forego an important promotion or otherwise experience stunted career advancement. Perhaps without the Affirmative Action Multiplier, Todd could have proved himself in the workplace and advanced on merit irrespective of his ethnic background.
Perhaps the Affirmative Action Multiplier is an inherent problem in administering admission boosts based on ethnic background. And maybe it is an acceptable problem. But it is certainly something for institutions to consider when adopting or retaining affirmative action policies.