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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2001

Report Assesses Affirmative Action Programs in the United States

Affirmative action programs have successfully redistributed education and economic resources to women and minorities without serious consequences to efficiency, say two noted economists writing in the September 2000 issue of the Journal of Economic Literature. In "Assessing Affirmative Action," authors Harry Holzer of Georgetown University and David Neumark of Michigan State University, provide an exhaustive review and analysis of more than 200 scientific studies of affirmative action.

The economists base their conclusions on the results of longitudinal studies, audits, national surveys, labor statistics and so on. This is a notable contribution to a debate that frequently rests on anecdotal arguments, such as many of those William G. Bowen and Derek Bok relied upon in their 1998 book The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Holzer and Neumark also approach the issue from the perspective of economic performance, not just social policy.

Taken together, their data show that discrimination is the most sound empirical explanation for historical wage and achievement gaps. The economists show that discrimination is an ongoing problem. Finally, they rely on well-established research findings to conclude that efforts to improve the status of women and minorities in education, business and government do not exact a significant toll on economic efficiency.

After 30 years of affirmative action, say the authors, the evidence shows that, where practiced, the programs boost the participation of women and minorities anywhere from 10 to 15 per cent. The 200 studies reviewed show no evidence of weaker educational qualifications or job performance for women beneficiaries than for men. And in instances where the beneficiaries of affirmative action do have weaker credentials, they still perform about as well as non-minorities. With remedial training and support, the differences almost disappear.

The study comes at a time when confusion and ambivalence over affirmative action reigns in many quarters. Legal challenges and state ballot initiatives are limiting the avenues that colleges and businesses can use to achieve the goal of truly diverse campuses and workplaces. Yet polls also show that the public supports the goals of affirmative action in education and the workplace. Clearly, it is a policy that will need to continue evolving.

Source: Campus Clips, American Federation of Teachers,