Was Justice O’Connor Right? Race and Highly Selective College Admissions in 25 Years
In her opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor concluded that affirmative action in college admissions is justifiable, but not in perpetuity: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.”
The rate at which racial gaps in precollegiate academic achievement can plausibly be expected to erode is a matter of considerable uncertainty. In this essay, we attempt to evaluate the plausibility of Justice O’Connor’s conjecture by projecting the racial composition of the 2025 elite college applicant pool. Our projections extrapolate past trends on two important margins: Gaps between the economic resources of black and white students’ families, and narrowing of test score gaps between black and white students with similar family incomes. Just as the last decades have seen considerable narrowing of gaps on each margin, further progress can be expected over the next quarter century.
Our central question is whether this progress will plausibly be fast enough to validate Justice O’Connor’s prediction. We are well aware of the hazards inherent in our exercise: No such distant projections can be definitive. Nevertheless, by relying on reasonable historical assumptions that are arguably optimistic, we develop a baseline case for assessing the likelihood of O’Connor’s forecast.
We conclude that under reasonable assumptions, African American students will continue to be substantially underrepresented among the most qualified college applicants for the foreseeable future. The magnitude of the underrepresentation is likely to shrink—in our most optimistic simulation, somewhat over half of the gap that would be opened by the elimination of race preferences will be closed by the projected improvement in black achievement.
Still, it seems unlikely that today’s level of racial diversity will be achievable without some form of continuing affirmative action. If the Supreme Court follows through with O’Connor’s stated intention to ban affirmative action in 25 years, and if colleges do not adjust in other ways (such as reducing the importance of numerical qualifications to admissions), we project substantial declines in the representation of African Americans among admitted students at selective institutions.
Our analysis proceeds from the assumption that the most likely future course will resemble past trends. Substantial changes in educational policy, in school effectiveness, and in income inequality would all have important effects on black test score distributions and on the admissions landscape.