Open the gates wider: affirmative action and dropping out

Abstract

Affirmative action policies are oftentimes pitted against the need of universities to maintain meritocratic standards in enrollment. The current study tackles this institutional dilemma against the standard of student attrition. It does so by analyzing records of 41,483 undergraduate students who attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2003–2015). Approximately 5% of the students were marked eligible by an affirmative action policy that is unique to Israel. Specifically, a non-governmental organization oversees the Israeli indirect affirmative action policy and grants applicants with the status largely based on class. Descriptive statistics reveal no significant differences in dropout rates between affirmative action students and their normative peers. To verify those patterns, we test hierarchical logistic models alongside advanced decision tree models. The findings show the superiority of first-year grade point average and other academic indicators in predicting dropouts. They also confirm that students who are eligible for affirmative action depart at virtually the same rates as normative students and other risk groups. We conclude by suggesting that under certain conditions, universities do not pay any price by admitting students through the backdoor of affirmative action. Therefore, universities can and should open their gates wider.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    As mentioned above, Israel has a relatively homogenous system of higher education. Furthermore, in the past years, an increasing number of Palestinian students from East Jerusalem alongside Ultra-Orthodox Jewish students enrolled at the Hebrew University due to inclusion policies. Being diverse in its social composition while sharing similar structural and bureaucratic characteristics with other universities, the Hebrew University is not an exception but the rule. As such, we find it appropriate for generalization when speaking about the Israeli context.

  2. 2.

    We acknowledge that individual level information (e.g., parents’ income and education) is preferable. However, the university does not collect such background data for reasons of privacy.

  3. 3.

    The formal decile score of student’s home communities is insensitive to variation within towns (i.e., to differences across neighborhoods). Driven by the desire to establish a stronger dichotomy of disadvantage, we manually identified communities considered to be part of the Israeli social and geographic periphery. These communities have lower resources, and their social composition is geared toward Israeli-Palestinians, Ultra-Orthodox, and Mizrahi groups (Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent who are the historically disadvantaged ethno-national group).

  4. 4.

    A traditional route to unlock admission for low achieving students is the pre-academic preparatory programs. These are administrated in-house by universities and colleges. Candidates may apply despite holding partial or low high school matriculation scores or psychometric scores (the conventional criteria for admission). Studies take 1 year with a focus on core subjects such as mathematics, English, and general academic skills. At its end, graduates may apply to undergraduate studies at the institution.

  5. 5.

    The college admission scandal of 2019 exposed cheating on testing and admission practices. Fifty-one people were indicted, including 34 parents. The actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison and businessman Devin Sloane to 4 months (Taylor 2019). The judge, Indira Talwani, expressed deep reservations about admission procedures in the USA even without bribery and cheating by affluent parents.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by The Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, Israel. Their financial support is gratefully acknowledged. The findings, and possible mistakes, are the authors’ only. We would also like to express our gratitude to Udi Shavit, Guy Harpaz, Eldad Hoze, and Ora Attia for their assistance and feedback during this research project.

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Rotem, N., Yair, G. & Shustak, E. Open the gates wider: affirmative action and dropping out. High Educ (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00556-9

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Keywords

  • Affirmative action
  • Student attrition
  • Dropout
  • Institutional admission policy
  • Israel
  • Meritocracy