The Efficiency of Race-Neutral Alternatives to Race-Based Affirmative Action: Evidence from Chicago’s Exam Schools

New Findings, School Assignment, School Reform, September 2016

Several pub­lic K-12 and uni­ver­sity sys­tems have recently shifted from race-based affir­ma­tive action plans to race-neutral alter­na­tives. This paper explores the degree to which race-neutral alter­na­tives are effec­tive sub­sti­tutes for racial quo­tas using data from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where a race-neutral, place-based affir­ma­tive action sys­tem is used for admis­sions at highly com­pet­i­tive exam high schools. We develop a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work that moti­vates quan­ti­fy­ing the effi­ciency cost of race-neutral poli­cies by the extent admis­sions deci­sions are dis­torted more than needed to achieve a given level of diver­sity. According to our met­ric, CPS’s race-neutral sys­tem is 24% and 20% effi­cient as a tool for increas­ing minor­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tion at the top two exam schools, i.e. about three-fourths of the reduc­tion in com­pos­ite scores could have been avoided by explic­itly con­sid­er­ing race. Even though CPS’s sys­tem is based on socioe­co­nomic dis­ad­van­tage, it is actu­ally less effec­tive than racial quo­tas at increas­ing the num­ber of low-income stu­dents. We exam­ine sev­eral alter­na­tive race-neutral poli­cies and find some to be more effi­cient than the CPS pol­icy. What is fea­si­ble varies with the school’s sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood char­ac­ter­is­tics and the tar­geted level of minor­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tion. However, no race-neutral pol­icy restores minor­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tion to prior lev­els with­out sub­stan­tial inef­fi­ciency, imply­ing sig­nif­i­cant effi­ciency costs from pro­hi­bi­tions on affir­ma­tive action poli­cies that explic­itly con­sider race.