This Duke professor’s research changed race-conscious college admissions. What does he have to say about the future?

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Supreme Court placed restrictions on race-based affirmative action in college admissions in June, and Duke economics professor Peter Arcidiacono’s research formed much of the basis for the decision.

Arcidiacono, William Henry Glasson distinguished professor of economics, was retained by the petitioner, Students for Fair Admissions, as an expert. SFFA is an anti-affirmative action nonprofit that believes that admissions practices at two universities, Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discriminate against Asian American applicants. 

As the case proceeded through the lower courts, Arcidiacono’s statistical findings were presented as evidence by SFFA of racial discrimination, and the Court’s majority ultimately agreed. 

“[Harvard and UNC’s admissions] programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping and lack meaningful end points,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

Among other results, Arcidiacono found in 2022 that Asian American applicants to Harvard received significantly lower “personal ratings” and overall ratings than applicants of other races, despite there being “fairly small” racial differences in other factors that are considered in the admissions process.

“It has to be one of two things. It has to be that they really do lack integrity, courage, kindness and empathy to the same degree as students of other races, or there has to be something wrong with this personal score,” said Justice Samuel Alito of Asian American applicants to Harvard’s attorney during oral arguments last November.

The Chronicle spoke with Arcidiacono after the Supreme Court’s decision was released to follow up about what his models might say about the future of college admissions. 

“It’s surreal that it’s over,” Arcidiacono said. “I think the big thing is where do we go from here? … it was a bit validating for me in the sense that I thought, the way the statistical analysis that was handled in the lower courts was not great.”

Legacy admissions

Of particular interest to Arcidiacono is the pushback that legacy admissions is receiving as a result of the decision. Harvard is currently facing a complaint from three organizations that claim legacy admissions practices discriminate against Black, Hispanic and Asian American applicants. Arcidiacono’s research found that legacy status can increase an applicant’s chance of admission substantially. 

“It's pretty remarkable the way legacy admissions is facing so much heat now. It's almost like the two were tied together in that regard,” Arcidiacono said. “I think doing things like removing legacy admissions and such is crucial in building institutions that are more trustworthy.”

Duke President Vincent Price is a proponent of legacy admissions. Price defended both legacy and race-conscious admissions during an Academic Council meeting in 2022. 

“We're an institution that was made in a family — the Duke family. We bear the name of that family. We represent family, we talk about family, so how does that translate into the way we behave?” Price said during the meeting. “The idea that you would ban legacy admissions, or ban any particular factor as a consideration, is troublesome.” 

Other uses of race

The Supreme Court decision did not bar the consideration of race altogether. Experiences tied to race can be considered in the context of applicants’ lives, so long as they can be connected to attributes for which a college is selecting. 

“​​At the same time, as all parties agree, nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” Roberts wrote in the opinion.

Arcidiacono believes that asking for “diversity statements” such as these could continue to affect the type of student admitted from minority groups. He worries that as colleges ask for these statements, it could result in “homogeneity” among admitted students from specific minority groups. 

“It's an outstanding question whether someone who is conservative and Black brings more diversity to Duke than someone who is liberal and Black,” Arcidiacono said. “Because there's so few Black conservatives, that actually is adding more diversity from that perspective.”

Wealth and economic factors

Colleges and universities could also begin to place an emphasis on socioeconomic factors like income, as the University of California system has done, when California banned the use of race in public college admissions in 1996.

Arcidiacono says that his models show that “bumps” for race currently outweigh bumps for being from a low-income background. But the models also say that as the use of race diminishes, the magnitude of preference afforded to low-income students could increase. 

As an example, he said that the preference that low-income Black applicants receive is similar to that of wealthier Black applicants, because it is due to race. As race is no longer considered, Arcidiacono said that “we can expect the ‘poor bump’ to increase in magnitude.”

“It does kink the [socioeconomic status] mix of Black students,” Arcidiacono said.

However, the increase in preference given to lower-income students might not be as stark as expected, according to Arcidiacono. 

“The reason it might not increase as much as you'd like actually comes back again to Asian Americans,” he said. “Because poor Asian American families have competitive applications to these top places at rates that are way higher than those who are poor from other groups.”

“A lot of times affirmative action allows us to distract from the massive differences in what's happening before college that we need to address, and when we deal with those things, the rest will follow,” Arcidiacono added. 

Admissions models for the future

Arcidiacono said that he prefers a “one test” system for college admissions as a path forward. 

He said that this is a common system that’s prevalent in countries around the world, and has been successful to varying degrees. Asian countries tend to adopt a one-test system for elite college admissions: India has the Joint Entrance Exams for admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology, China has the Gaokao and Korea has the College Scholastic Ability Test.

In many countries, test-based admissions systems have worked, but in others, it creates a “pressure cooker” environment focused on one exam, Arcidiacono said.

British institutions adopt a modified approach. Undergraduate programs at elite institutions in the United Kingdom, including at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, take into account subject-specific admissions exams along with scores on externally-scored end-of-year exams that follow a nationally standardized curriculum.

In any case, Arcidiacono believes that the academic focus in college admissions should return to objectively measurable factors, including test scores. 

Considering other forms of academic achievement through holistic admissions processes tends to favor wealthier applicants, he said. He is not alone in thinking this.

One of the latest trends, according to a report from ProPublica, is for families to pay online services to assist their high school-aged students in becoming peer-reviewed authors. Other, long-standing examples of these practices include admissions consulting services that assist with crafting personal statements and enrollment in expensive extracurricular activities that can give students a leg up in admissions.

“I think [test scores] should be a much bigger slice, just for the purposes of being able to trust the system,” he said. “Because we think about those test scores as favoring the rich, it's the other stuff that favors the rich even more.”

Adway S. Wadekar profile
Adway S. Wadekar | News Editor

Adway S. Wadekar is a Trinity junior and former news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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