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'The Indicator' from Planet Money: How ending affirmative action changed California


The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on affirmative action in college admissions. If the policy is struck down nationwide, California offers some clues about how that might affect students and their future earnings. California banned affirmative action in public universities back in 1996. Adrian Ma from our daily economics podcast, The Indicator, explains.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Zach Bleemer is an economist at Yale who studies college admissions. And for him, California's ban on affirmative action in public universities offered up a gold mine for research. So he looked at a whole bunch of anonymized data about two groups of students - those who applied to college before the ban and those who applied after. And it came away with three main findings. First, he found the immediate effect of ending affirmative action was a huge drop in the number of underrepresented minority students attending the most selective public universities.

ZACH BLEEMER: Affirmative action ends, and Black, Hispanic and Native American students, on average, go to slightly less-selective schools. White and Asian students, meanwhile, on average, get to go to slightly more-selective schools, taking the slots of these Black and Hispanic students who had lost access to those places.

MA: His second finding looked at the long-run implications of all this shifting around.

BLEEMER: If you follow these students forward into the labor market, the typical student who, because of the end of affirmative action, had a little bit less access to more selective universities, ended up earning about 5% less than they would have earned if they'd had access to more selective universities through race-based affirmative action.

MA: This did not happen to the white and Asian students that he was following who got rejected from that top, super-selective tier of colleges. In most cases, he says, the white and Asian students experienced no decline or maybe just a very slight decline in their future earnings. And Zach thinks this may be because those white and Asian students generally came from backgrounds where they could get into and afford a private university education. And it may also be that the Black and Hispanic students, on average, came from less-privileged backgrounds, and they just had more to gain from the education and the networks that were available to them at these schools.

BLEEMER: This clearly isn't true for every single student. There are many Black and Hispanic students who come from high-income backgrounds that are very networked. There are many low-income white and Asian students who don't have that network. What I'm saying is just, on average, Black and Hispanic students who gained access through affirmative action were driving substantially above-average gains compared to the students who replaced them.

MA: They got more bang for their buck.

BLEEMER: Exactly. I think the best that I can say is, forgetting questions of equity, if your goal is just to maximize economic efficiency, just to identify an admissions policy that will spur economic growth, identify students who will be able to best take advantage of university resources, earn the highest wages, pay back the most in tax dollars and otherwise succeed using a university's resources - that's what affirmative action did.

MA: At least, before the state banned it. Now, if affirmative action gets banned nationally, Zach predicts the country is going to see a version of what happened in California - an immediate drop in enrollment for underrepresented minority students at highly selective schools. And in the longer run, he predicts that the sizable income gap that currently exists between white and Asian college graduates and Black, Hispanic and Native American grads will grow.

Adrian Ma, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.