Affirmative action and its race-neutral alternatives

February 7, 2023

As affirmative action loses political feasibility, many universities have implemented race-neutral alternatives like top percent policies and holistic review to increase enrollment among disadvantaged students. I study these policies’ application, admission, and enrollment effects using University of California administrative data. UC’s affirmative action and top percent policies increased underrepresented minority (URM) enrollment by over 20 percent and less than 4 percent, respectively. Holistic review increases implementing campuses’ URM enrollment by about 7 percent. Top percent policies and holistic review have negligible effects on lower-income enrollment, while race-based affirmative action modestly increased enrollment among very low-income students. These findings highlight that the most common race-neutral alternatives to affirmative action increase Black and Hispanic enrollment far less than affirmative action itself and reveal that none of these policies substantially affect universities’ socioeconomic composition.

Journal of Public Economics