The returns to a college education have never been greater. In 2000, college graduates made 80 percent more on average than those with only a high school degree. Over a lifetime, this amounts to more than a million-dollar difference in income (College Board 2002). Moreover, the relative benefits of a college degree are likely to continue to grow as the labor market increasingly favors skilled over unskilled workers. Unfortunately, access to higher education is difficult for many due to issues of affordability and preparation (Ellwood and Kane 2000, ACSFA 2001 and 2002). Furthermore, general access to higher education has become less important as research has shown that the greatest benefits are primarily available at particular types of institutions. There has been growing dispersion in the incomes of college-educated Americans since 1970, and nearly half of this can be explained by the increased segregation of top students at schools with considerable resources (Hoxby and Long 1999). Therefore, gaining access to a high-quality college has become the goal of many families.
Unfortunately, the availability of spaces at the top American colleges is limited. Particularly, with the entrance of the Baby Boom Echo, the large cohort of children of the Baby Boomers, the demand for a four-year college education has risen above capacity. It is under these conditions that racial preferences in higher education have been attacked most severely as the country debates how to distribute access to competitive, four-year colleges. This issue is particularly important given the changing demographics of the United States. In a matter of years, a majority of high school graduates will be students of color, and the opportunity for them to attend competitive institutions will dictate the quality of the future labor force.
As the debate ensues about affirmative action in higher education, one major question is whether there are alternative policies that would maintain levels of diversity in higher education. This paper explores this issue by examining several alternatives that have been considered in recent years. To evaluate them, one must ask whether they produce levels of racial and ethnic diversity that mirror the proportion found in the population or at least the level that occurred when affirmative action was in place. Furthermore, one should consider how these alternative strategies are likely to affect other long term factors such as college persistence. This paper is organized as follows: Section II discusses the role of racial preferences in higher education admissions. Sections III and IV consider alternatives to affirmative action such as percentage plans and different admissions tests and standards. Section V concludes.
II. The Role of Racial Preferences
Although there is a perception that affirmative action is extensive in higher education, the true role of race in college admissions is largely unclear. To discern the role of racial preferences, researchers have compared the academic characteristics of students of different races at a particular college. However, researchers often do not have complete information of all the factors that affect admissions to determine with any confidence the extent of racial preferences. For example, Kane (1998) compares the college application decisions of high school graduates at elite institutions, Although he finds that students of color attended slightly better elite institutions than white students with similar characteristics, he notes that this observation is based only on test score and high school GPA information. Admissions committees, particularly at these types of institutions, take into account a wide variety of criteria, and some of these factors are likely to be subjective measures not easily captured in analysis. For example, many schools require student essays and recommendations from teachers. Moreover, extracurricular activities and leadership experiences are also important influences in application decisions. …