NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What Does the Evidence Show About Affirmative Action?

January 31, 2001

Economists have studied the effects of affirmative action on economic efficiency -- and specifically claims that workplace diversity of sex, race and ethnicity yields positive benefits. A review of the evidence by economists Harry Holzer and David Neumark was hailed for findings supportive of affirmative action. At least, they found affirmative action doesn't impair organizational efficiency.

Actually, says political scientist Frederick R. Lynch of Claremont McKenna College, they found mixed evidence, yielding highly qualified conclusions. Holzer and Neumark warn that "the potential effects of affirmative action on performance, at least in the labor market, appear to depend on how it is implemented."

Holzer and Neumark conclude from the available evidence:

  • Women who benefit from affirmative action have educational qualifications and job performance ratings comparable to men's.
  • Minorities tend to have weaker qualifications, but "evidence of weaker performance in the labor market among these groups is much less frequently observed or is less credible."
  • Data on the effectiveness of preferential contracting and procurement programs for women and minorities is limited, mixed and compromised by data from bogus "minority-front" businesses mixed in with those of valid minority enterprises.

Looking at affirmative action admissions in higher education -- which might affect the labor market performance of graduates -- they found:

  • On average, blacks have lower qualifications and graduation rates, though their graduation rates at more selective colleges compare favorably to those elsewhere.
  • In medical schools, minorities and "special admits" have lower grades and fail medical board exams at higher rates.
  • They are, however, more likely to practice in minority and/or poorer communities.

Holzer and Neumark note that "There is no evidence of positive (or negative) effects of a diverse student body on educational quality."

Source: Frederick R. Lynch (Claremont McKenna College), "New Look at Diversity Challenges Race-and-Gender Groupthink," San Francisco Chronicle, January 24, 2001; Harry Holzer and David Neumark, "Assessing Affirmative Action," Journal of Economic Literature, September 2000.

For text


Browse more articles on Economic Issues