Monday, February 13, 2012

Affirmative Action in Education

This paper came out a month ago, and I’ve been sitting on it ever since, mainly from sheer lack of time to do it any justice. The subject’s a sensitive one in Malaysia, and even though the research was conducted in India, the situations are similar enough  to have quite a bit of bearing on our own management of education for the disadvantaged.

Just keep in mind that this is still a working paper and conclusions sometimes change rather drastically between the working paper stage and final publishing, as well as the fact that the paper is only looking at one institution in another country.

From the abstract:

Affirmative Action in Higher Education in India: Targeting, Catch Up, and Mismatch at IIT-Delhi
Verónica C. Frisancho Robles, Kala Krishna

Affirmative action policies in higher education are used in many countries to try to socially advance historically disadvantaged minorities. Although the underlying social objectives of these policies are rarely criticized, there is intense debate over the actual impact of such preferences in higher education on educational performance and labor outcomes. Most of the work uses U.S. data where clean performance indicators are hard to find. Using a remarkably detailed dataset on the 2008 graduating class from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi we evaluate the impact of affirmative action policies in higher education on minority students focusing on three central issues in the current debate: targeting, catch up, and mismatch. In addition, we present preliminary evidence on labor market discrimination. We find that admission preferences effectively target minority students who are poorer than the average displaced non-minority student. Moreover, by analyzing the college performance of minority and non-minority students as they progress through college, we find that scheduled caste and scheduled tribe students, especially those in more selective majors, fall behind their same-major peers which is the opposite of catching up. We also identify evidence in favor of the mismatch hypothesis: once we control for selection into majors, minority students who enroll in more selective majors as a consequence of admission preferences end up earning less than their same-caste counterparts in less selective majors. Finally, although there is no evidence of discrimination against minority students in terms of wages, we find that scheduled caste and scheduled tribe students are more likely to get worse jobs, even after controlling for selection.

So, what does all that gobbledegook mean? First the context: India as you may know has been bedevilled by a caste system where certain tribes or castes have been historically discriminated against in many areas of society. One avenue to combat this has been through the implementation of affirmative action in favour of these minority castes and tribes in education and in social assistance, specifically through mandated admissions quotas.

From this research, the conclusions are:

  1. Targeting – in terms of helping the right people, India’s policy appears to be successful in terms of assisting the poor to gain access to higher education;
  2. Catch Up – However, consistent with intuition, these students tend to do worse than their (unassisted) peers; and
  3. Mismatch – The assisted students also tend to end up in courses they would not have chosen for themselves, which exacerbates problem No 2 – if you’re not interested in what you’re studying, you’ll tend to do worse than your potential abilities would indicate. Very obviously, this ends up as lower lifetime wages.

So on the one hand, affirmative action does provide easier access to higher education, which is one precondition for social and economic mobility i.e. making society more “fair”. Education is the great leveller, and while it won’t do anything against wealth inequality, there’s at least some hopes of reducing income inequality embedded in unequal access to education.

But…expectations shouldn’t be too high and the mechanism of assistance matters. If assisted students are forced into subjects they have no aptitude for, you’ll get sub-optimal results both in terms of grades and in terms of the final hoped-for outcome of equal opportunityequal economic and social mobility.

It’s not a complete waste of time and money – relative to the alternative of no assistance/quotas at all, the students are still miles better off. But the overall impact is likely be less than desired, and over time reduces the overall quality of the workforce relative to what’s possible. In the end, that might be a price worth paying – but that’s a social and political decision, not an economic one.

Are there any solutions to the mismatch and catch up problems? Not that I know of. Now…would it be too much to hope for that someone does similar research here? Preferably without any political rhetoric?

Technical notes

Frisancho Robles, Verónica C. & Kala Krishna, "Affirmative Action in Higher Education in India: Targeting, Catch Up, and Mismatch at IIT-Delhi", NBER Working Paper No. 17727, January 2012


  1. The problems with affirmative action in a country we both know are three-fold.

    One, it was implemented as a zero-sum game. Meaning more for me by less for you.

    Two, creating a culture of short-cuts which in turn overturned many development projects while developing crutches leeched onto the very system which perpetuates its own monopoly over how the action is to be applied, ergo without natural iterative self-improvement.

    And three, the action led instead to outright rigged distribution followed by siphoning, leakages and inflated pricing.

    In the end, it's not just quality that suffers but also any chance to change the system that causes the issues to arise in the first place.

    This post, for the young Malay girl sobbing in stress between shelves in the Main Library of one local university three days before start of the finals even as far back as some thirty years ago.

  2. And the standard thought process has been unwisely too target-focused.

    How many to produce? Where to place all immediately?

    No thought was given on the demotivating effects of the affirmative actions on the rest of the ecosystem that is supporting the affirmative actions directly and indirectly and with whom the products must be natural extension ultimately interact with .

    Without that interaction, progress can only be temporary and soon depletes itself because wealth creation is the real game and it depends on intra-system cooperation not competition.

    Same too with education. Doing it sentimentally in one language but without asking what happens after that is just self-lock in silo mindset. Good for cowherds but hardly applicable for high-income science-based propulsive economies.

    Looking for the wrapping white cloth soon...

  3. Useful to consider what Hwok Aun has said - there is a difference between poverty reduction and affirmative action.

    UMNO is not sure what it actually wants - leading to wrong policy recommendations.

    These two articles capture this dilemma:

  4. True..malaysia's affirmative action on education is being misused...the MRSM was a good was meant to place rural bumi sudents in a fully equipped that many national schools are up to par,the MRSM role is fast diminishing,the MRSM institutions are becoming bastions of elitism..i myself know some MRSM students and they are far from being poor...they go for European vacastion during semester holidays!!!Not to say theydont deserve it, MRSM students are smart but i dun think they should getmore fundings tha other bumi students that attaned national schools,in the end parents even rich ones snd them to MRSM to get MARA scholarships which we all know are almost all given to MRSM students. MARA spent close half a billion on the MRSM that benefot at most 30 000 students and not all are poor..while MARA institusions like KPm,Giat and traininf centres that could help hundres of thousands of bumi students only get rm200 million..go figure.

  5. @Greg,

    Thanks for the links, I'll respond when I've had the time to read through.


    Yes, there's something not quite right when scholarships go to those who don't really need them. Part of the problem I think is the role of parental background - higher income families tend to emphasize education as well as invest more in their children, so those with better school results also tend to be the richer kids. That's a big problem to try and fix.

  6. I tot so that bumi student from kampung will likely to fail on SPC programs to overseas but i have literally met poor bumi students, one from Kelantan who never set foot outside Kelantan until his A levels at KDU who is now Petronas project engineer,one from rural FELDA who is now sponsored by the Australian government to do research in Biotech and one from Kuala selangor who did not speak good english but now an engineering researcher a Monash Uni in Melbourne and PhD candidate.

    Affirmativeaction in education can be a great tool to social doubt about it if we plug the leaks.

    MARA which is nowhave limkted funds as it is now also running universities now plan to charge premium on middle class and rich parents who send their students to MRSM.Hopefully this will free uo more funds to other MARA vocational institutions.

  7. This post, for the young Malay girl sobbing in stress between shelves in the Main Library of one local university three days before start of the finals even as far back as some thirty years ago.

  8. I think is the role of parental background - higher income families tend to emphasize education as well as invest more in their children, so those with better school results also tend to be the richer kids.