Higher education is often viewed as an engine of social mobility. However, individuals from low-income families are often underrepresented in selective universities, which can lead to higher inequality in labor market outcomes after college. Affirmative action policies aim to reduce this inequality by increasing the representation of low-income and minority students in selective universities.
Previous research has found that affirmative action works at moderately-selective universities. Affirmative action at these institutions allows disadvantaged students to attend colleges with greater resources and higher graduation rates. This increases the likelihood that they earn a college degree, which improves their labor market prospects.
But things are different at the most selective universities. All applicants to these institutions are highly qualified, and those who are not admitted are likely to earn a college degree elsewhere. So, what role do affirmative action policies play at elite institutions?
A new study by briq postdoc Germán Reyes, together with Cecilia Machado and Evan Riehl, sheds light on this topic by examining the impacts of a large-scale affirmative action policy at one of Brazil’s most selective and prestigious universities, Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ). In the early 2000s, UERJ began reserving 45 percent of its admission slots for low-income and minority applicants, which dramatically increased the racial and socioeconomic diversity of its student body.
The researchers analyzed the academic and early-career trajectories of all UERJ students, focusing on the policy’s impact on two distinct groups. First, the “targeted” students who were directly admitted through the affirmative action program. Second, the “non-targeted” students who would have gained admission regardless of the policy.
They found that the affirmative action policy boosted the early-career earnings for the targeted group. Unlike the research mentioned above, the researchers did not find any impact on educational attainment. Instead, the earnings benefit was driven by access to a set of high-quality firms associated with the alumni network of the university. However, this income benefit faded as they progressed in their careers.
UERJ’s experience reveals that at elite universities, affirmative action helps disadvantaged students gain access to valuable networks that lead to high-wage initial jobs. But this benefit does not necessarily persist over time because disadvantaged students face additional barriers to career advancement in the labor market. While affirmative action and similar admission policies are crucial in addressing disparities in college access, they alone cannot overcome all challenges faced by underprivileged individuals.