Quotas and Metrics

Rehnquist made the argument that Michigan’s bonus point system is tantamount to a quota system, which was ruled unconstitutional under Bakke. Commenter Andrew wrote below that “There might be a distinction between quota or bonus-point affirmative action programs and a more subjective system, but I can’t see it.”

At first glance, there seems to be a substantial distinction: with a quota, a university does not know in advance how far down in the distribution of grades and test scores it will have to go to meet the quota. That is, under a quota, a university has to fill X slots with students from ethnic group Z, regardless of the academic performance of applicants from group Z. In contrast, under a bonus point system, the number of minorities admitted from each group can fluctuate from year to year, according to academic performance that year.

Moreover, consider the marginal white student—the one who was barely bumped because of affirmative action. Under a quota system, if the student does a little better, he could gain admission, but it would necessarily come at the expense of another white person, because the quotas bind. Under a bonus system, if the marginal white student had worked a little bit harder and gained admission, it could come at the expense of any student (i.e., at the expense of the lowest-scoring admitted student other than the student in question). So the bonus system is more flexible than a quota system and it’s a bit disingenuous to equate the two.

That said, there are a lot of applications every year, meaning that laws of large numbers apply. If a school’s Admissions Office has a target number of minorities to admit (a quota) in mind, they can readily infer what number of bonus points will achieve that target, give or take a few students. Metrics like Michigan’s can be mapped into quotas with a pretty narrow range of error, so it’s only “a bit” disingenuous.