Immigrant Students and the Tension Between Two Rationales for Affirmative Action:

This recent article in Higher Ed News summarizes a recent study showing that first or second generation immigrants (primarily from Africa and the Caribbean) make up 27% of the black students at a sample of "selective" universities, including over 40% at Ivy League schools (Hat tip: David Bernstein, who pointed out this article to me). While the article does not say how many of the black immigrant students were admitted under affirmative action programs, it is likely that at least some substantial number were, since the author notes that their average grades and test scores were only slightly higher than those of their native-born black classmates, of whom a large proportion were admitted to elite universities as a result of affirmative action programs. For example, a well-known pro-affirmative action study by William Bowen and Derek Bok found that the abolition of affirmative action would reduce the percentage of black students at the "most selective" universities from 7.9% to 2.1%.

The large number of immigrants in the sample highlights a tension between the two major rationales for affirmative action in college admissions: diversity and compensatory justice. Under the compensatory justice rationale, affirmative action is defensible because it helps compensate for the disadvantages inflicted on certain minority groups by centuries of discrimination and (in the case of African-Americans) enslavement. By contrast, the diversity rationale holds that we need affirmative action in order to expose students to the perspectives of minority groups whose views they might not otherwise encounter.

Obviously, the compensatory justice argument implies that affirmative action should be limited to native-born members of discriminated-against minority groups. Immigrants may well have suffered from injustice in their own countries, but in most cases they have no moral claim for compensation from the United States. By contrast, the diversity rationale implies that immigrants may actually be preferable to native-born minorities; on average, an immigrant from Africa or the West Indies has had life experiences that are more different from the American mainstream than those of any native-born citizen.

Naturally, affirmative action defenders will want to argue that we need not pick between the two rationales and instead pursue both. However, given a limited number of affirmative action admissions slots, any seat that goes to a compensatory justice candidate will be unavailable to diversity applicants and vice versa. Thus, universities will inevitably face tradeoffs between the two goals.

In my view, the compensatory justice rationale provides a much stronger normative case for affirmative action than does diversity. I am skeptical that the latter provides sufficient justification to override the presumption against using racial classifications in admissions decisions. My view is almost the opposite of that taken by the Supreme Court majority in cases such as Grutter v. Bollinger, where they largely rejected the compensatory justice argument, but embraced diversity. But those who disagree with my position still must face the tradeoffs involved.

NOTE: To avoid the inevitable misunderstandings that a statement this subject is likely to attract, I should emphasis that this is not a post about the legality or constitutionality of affirmative action. For what it's worth, I believe that private institutions should have the legal right to practice as much affirmative action as they want. The case of public universities such as George Mason is more complex, but I ultimately agree with the Supreme Court's holding in Grutter that public affirmative action is not categorically unconstitutional.

In this post, however, I am setting aside these well-worn legal issues in order to focus on the policy tradeoffs, and I encourage commenters to do likewise. The legal issues have been debated so often over the last thirty years that it is hard to say anything new about them.

Lastly, it should go without saying that I am not opposed to universities admitting immigrant students. I was one such admittee myself! However they - or rather we - should not benefit from affirmative action preferences.