The Challenges of Affirmative Action: Peter Arcidiacono

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Despite the benefits of Affirmative Action as told by Professor Harry Holzer, there also exists many challenges when the policy framework is deployed in College and University admissions. While the intention of admitting students from different backgrounds may be noble, by building a more diverse student body – are schools providing the necessary supports for students to succeed? And if not, could this indirectly be exacerbating the divide between students of different backgrounds?

I invited Professor Peter Arcidiacono on to discuss further. Professor Arcidiacono’s work has focused on noting friendship formations based both on race and academic backgrounds. The findings were fascinating. Could Affirmative Action policies be building a diverse student body and increasing segregation amongst students?

Who is Professor Peter Arcidiacono?

Peter Arcidiacono is a professor of economics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, United States. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, San Diego, in 1994. His research interests are in the areas of labor economics, education, and applied econometrics.

Arcidiacono has conducted extensive research on the economics of education, including studies on college admissions, the impact of affirmative action policies on college admissions and student outcomes, and the effects of peer influences on academic performance. He is also known for his work on the economics of the labor market, including studies on the effects of minimum wage policies on employment and earnings.

In addition to his academic work, Arcidiacono is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and has served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Labor, and other organizations.

What are some of the Stated Benefits of Affirmative Action for Colleges and Universities?

Affirmative action is a policy that aims to increase the representation of historically underrepresented groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities, in higher education institutions. There are several ways in which affirmative action can benefit colleges and universities:

  1. Diversity: Affirmative action can increase the diversity of the student body and faculty, which can create a more vibrant and intellectually stimulating environment. A diverse student body can also expose students to different perspectives and experiences, which can broaden their horizons and prepare them for life in a diverse society.
  2. Access: Affirmative action can increase access to higher education for historically underrepresented groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities, who may have faced discrimination in the past. By providing these groups with access to higher education, colleges and universities can help reduce socioeconomic disparities and promote social mobility.
  3. Equity: Affirmative action can help promote equity in higher education by ensuring that historically underrepresented groups have an equal opportunity to access and benefit from higher education. This can help reduce disparities in educational attainment and promote greater social and economic equality.
  4. Reputation: Affirmative action can enhance the reputation of colleges and universities as institutions that value diversity, equity, and social justice. This can help attract a more diverse and talented student body, faculty, and staff, which can enhance the institution’s intellectual and cultural vitality.

Do Affirmative Action Policies Lead to Cross-Racial Friendships on Campus?

Research has shown that students tend to form friendships with peers who have similar academic backgrounds, interests, and goals. For example, students who are enrolled in the same major or who share similar academic interests are more likely to form friendships than students who are not.

In addition, students’ academic backgrounds can also influence their social networks outside of the classroom. For example, students who are involved in extracurricular activities such as clubs or sports teams may form friendships with peers who share their interests, regardless of their academic background.

It is also worth noting that students’ academic backgrounds may be related to their socioeconomic status, which can in turn influence their social networks on campus. Research has shown that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may be less likely to form friendships with peers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds due to differences in social and cultural capital.

The impact of affirmative action policies on student segregation on campus is a complex issue that has been debated among scholars and policymakers. While some argue that affirmative action policies can lead to greater student segregation on campus, others argue that these policies can help promote diversity and integration.

On one hand, opponents of affirmative action policies argue that these policies can lead to greater segregation on campus by creating separate tracks for students of different races or ethnicities. For example, some argue that affirmative action policies may lead to the creation of separate dormitories, clubs, or organizations for students from underrepresented groups, which could further segregate students on campus.

Proponents of affirmative action policies argue that these policies can promote diversity and integration by increasing the representation of underrepresented groups on campus. For example, research has shown that greater racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses can lead to increased cross-racial interactions and greater cultural understanding among students.

Do Students Make Cross Racial Friendships?

Research co-authored by Peter indicate that while Black students attend colleges that are on average 7 percent Black, the share of their friends who are Black are 58 percent.

Research has shown that people tend to form friendships with others who share similar backgrounds, experiences, and interests. This is sometimes referred to as “homophily,” or the tendency to prefer those who are similar to ourselves.

Students from similar cultural and economic backgrounds may be more likely to share common experiences and perspectives, making it easier to form connections and friendships. However, this can also create challenges for students who come from different backgrounds and may not have as much in common with their peers.

What is a Major Criticism of Anti-Racism Policies on Campus?

For Professor Arcidiacono, many Anti-Racism policies on-campus are usually just about ‘doing something’ vs. ‘doing something that works‘. One example cited is a College asking students to read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility book as part of their work on anti-racism. It’s unclear to know whether or not students’ perspectives on race and racism changed as a result. For Professor Arcidiacono, this may not be the most effective measure – instead he argues, we can test this by having one group of students read DiAngelo’s work and another review the work of the FAIR Organization. Daryl Davis who works with FAIR and is a Black Jazz Musician, works with members of the KKK to renounce their views on the Black community.

Daryl is the author of Klan-Destine Relationships, which was the first book written about the Ku Klux Klan by a Black author. His engagement with the KKK started when, while playing in an all-White band, when a member of the Klan praised him for his musical style. Daryl recognized that he had an opportunity to ask an important question about racism: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Daryl has interviewed hundreds of KKK members and other White supremacists and influenced many of them to renounce their racist ideology.

For Professor Arcidiacono, testing both could be something Colleges can deploy to more accurately measure changed attitudes and behaviours when it comes to issues of race and racism.

The Way Forward

Colleges should be urged to use their own data as a means of assessing the needs of students to assess any additional supports or outreach. Instead of looking at Affirmative Action policies as ‘the right thing to do’, we have to be more rigorous on examining what works. What specific actions work to help encourage true diversity and inclusion on campuses? What doesn’t work and why? The more rigorous we are in the analysis, the potentially better the outcomes for students and campuses will be.