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Jeb Bush, the Washington Post, and Affirmative Action

There was a front-page story in the Washington Post last week, headlined “Black enrollment dwindles at major Florida colleges.”  The article takes Jeb Bush to task for his claim that, as governor, he was able to abolish racial preferences in public university admissions in that state and still have a system “where there were more African American and Hispanic kinds attending” than before the preferences were ended.  Bush replaced the racial preferences with a guarantee that the top 20 percent of each graduating high-school class could go to a state university, and added other measures like more college preparatory courses and grants for first-generation college students. 

The point the article makes is that at the state’s two top schools, the University of Florida in Gainesville and Florida State University in Tallahassee, the percentage of black students has gone down.

Now, in the first place, you would expect the percentage of African Americans to go down somewhere immediately after preferential treatment for them in admissions ended.  That's what preferential treatment does:  It increases the number of those getting the preference. 

Bush was right to end the policy of racial discrimination in admissions, and no school should have such a policy.  People can argue about what other steps ought to be taken to ensure that students of all colors get the access to schools that they need and deserve, but those steps should likewise be colorblind, and their success should not be judged on whether they achieve a particular racial and ethnic mix.

But some other limitations and weaknesses in the Post article are noteworthy, too.

The article does not quarrel with Bush’s claim with respect to Latinos.  It also acknowledges that the numbers of all ethnic groups have increased, including African Americans.  So its claim is the very limited one that the “as a proportion of the overall student population, black enrollment has declined – most noticeably at UF and FSU.”  And note that even that claim has an asterisk next to it, since that decline is no surprise if the black percentage of the general population is also declining – as is likely the case, given, to quote the Post, the “booming Hispanic population, which has led to a large increase in the share of Hispanic students attending Florida colleges.”

As for the apparent reshuffling of some black students from the more selective to less selective schools:  If students are still going to college, and are simply going to schools where their admissions qualifications are on par with the other students’, it’s hard to see how that is a problem for anyone.  It’s certainly not bad for the nonblack students who are no longer being discriminated against, and it’s also not bad for the black students, who are now less likely to be “mismatched” at their school – and, thus, more likely to get good grades and to graduate. 

The Post article, by the way, includes no graduation rate numbers, which is typical of liberal reporting in this area.  The same phenomenon took place in California when racial preferences in state university admissions were eliminated there.  That is, the number of black and Hispanic students admitted to some schools went down, at least initially, but the number of black and Hispanic students who graduated from a university increased “dramatically” (page 12 of an amicus brief written by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor).

One last statistical point:  The Post article also acknowledges that “the dwindling numbers seemed more drastic after 2010, when changes to the way the U.S. Department of Education classified race made it more likely for minorities to identify as Hispanic or ‘multiple race.’”

Much of the second half of the Post article is just a desultory discussion of how many students are voluntarily choosing to go to schools other than UF-Gainesville and Florida State, and the unhappiness of black students at those schools.  The Post also tries to suggest that the decline in the number of black students makes them less likely to be judged on their merits, because “it is not unusual for strangers to ask whether they attend the nearby community college” (huh?); and that some people still think they got into their school because of affirmative action (hardly Bush’s fault).

All this said, let me end by cautioning that I’m not a big fan of the way that Bush replaced racial admission preferences with a 20 percent plan, precisely because the latter was adopted with eye on achieving racial results, too.  But it was a big improvement compared to overt racial preferences – and the Post’s article criticizing Bush is just silly.

And it’s good news that Jeb Bush is proud of abolishing racial preferences and willing to brag about it.  It is too rare for politicians to take this stance – which is surprising, when all the evidence is that the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t like them.