Affirmative Action Motivates High School Students to Perform Better, According to New Research

On November 3, California voters will be asked to adopt Proposition 16, which would reinstate the power of California’s colleges and universities to consider race, ethnicity, and gender in admission decisions.

Affirmative action is a divisive topic in nations throughout the world, including India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Brazil, as well as the United States. While the direct effects of affirmative action on college admissions are well-known, new evidence from India suggests that affirmative action has indirect benefits on the behavior of underrepresented high school students, who are more likely to stay in school longer when they know higher education is possible.

According to a new University of California San Diego study published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, affirmative action measures result in minority students receiving 0.8 more years of education.

According to the study’s author, Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor of economics at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, “the opportunity to be admitted to college may motivate students to graduate from high school may underscore previous theoretical work on affirmative action that shows the opportunity to be admitted to college may motivate students to graduate from high school.”

Affirmative action makes attending a good institution much more accessible, and it actually motivates minority groups to strive harder to gain admission. Many universities may not look feasible without affirmative action, and students may be discouraged from even attempting.

Gaurav Khanna

“In the policy space, people have made claims that affirmative action lowers standards and the learning gains for underrepresented students who will ‘no longer work as hard.’ My research suggests the opposite,” Khanna said.

“Affirmative action makes attending a good institution much more accessible, and it actually motivates minority groups to strive harder to gain admission. Many universities may not look feasible without affirmative action, and students may be discouraged from even attempting.”

In 1993, India’s federal government implemented affirmative action measures, reserving 27% of highly sought-after government posts for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a term used by the government to describe castes that are educationally or socially disadvantaged. In 2006, reservations in colleges were implemented.

Another study reveals how affirmative action legislation in India improved minority participation in elite universities, and how graduates performed well in college and in the labor market after graduation. The UC San Diego research, on the other hand, looks at pre-collegiate educational achievement to see if affirmative action encourages kids to stay in school.

Khanna used a variety of data sources to address the issue, including the Indian National Sample Survey (NSS) to map educational attainment patterns by birth cohort and socioeconomic group. By the time the federal government policy was enacted in 1994, those born before 1976 would have reached the age of 18. As a result, he compared the educational levels of minority students in this cohort to those of OBCs before affirmative action measures were implemented.

The findings reveal that when affirmative action rules were established, OBCs’ educational attainment increased significantly. While non-minorities were remained more likely to seek higher education, affirmative action on a large scale helped close the academic gap by around 40% during a 15-year period.

“The evidence suggests that aspirations respond to such laws and additional research also shows that if peers are seen to benefit from this policy, then a role model effect may encourage educational attainment,” Khanna writes.

While affirmative action is federal legislation in India, each state determines how it will be implemented. This is measured by the percentage of university seats and government employment opportunities earmarked for minorities in relation to the state’s population.

In the state of Karnataka, for example, the policy is more stringent, with more places allocated in employment and institutions for OBCs. In Madhya Pradesh, on the other hand, fewer employment and college seats are designated for OBCs as a percentage of the population. Khanna discovered that states with a higher level of affirmative action, as measured by the proportion of seats reserved per OBC, witnessed a greater increase in minorities’ educational attainment.

Affirmative action: a contentious policy both at home and abroad

These policies are now an important element of Indian political agendas and election campaigns; the media widely covers them, and any policy change is met with protests from various groups.

Similarly, the subject is divided in the United States. For example, in 2018, the Trump administration declared that it would no longer follow Obama administration policy that required institutions to consider race when diversifying their campuses. “Schools should continue to give a fair opportunity for all students,” said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Given the debate in both countries, the other question Khanna sought to answer: is this educational response from the minority groups rational in terms of the expected costs and benefits?

Given the importance of education levels in determining qualification criteria for government positions in India, Khanna discovered that the proportion of OBCs employed in the public sector increased from 22% to 27% between 2000 and 2005. These positions pay well, especially in rural regions, where they come with benefits and employment stability. As a result, improvements in the possibility of receiving such occupations can have a big impact on minority groups’ decisions.

Khanna writes, “Yet even for members of the minority group who do not get government jobs, an increase in education may translate into benefits (like better health) and high wages as the estimated returns to education in developing countries are between 6% and 13%.”

He concluded, “Indeed, lowering educational inequalities and possibly wealth inequalities may be intrinsically valuable to policymakers. In light of these results, policymakers should consider the externalities of affirmative action policies when designing them.”