The Efficiency of Race-Neutral Alternatives to Race-Based Affirmative Action: Evidence from Chicago's Exam Schools

Innovation and Economic Growth

Article Snapshot


Glenn Ellison and Parag Pathak


NBER Working Paper 22589, September 2016


The race-neutral affirmative action system used at elite Chicago schools has been upheld as a national model. Under this system, slots are reserved students from low-income areas. But the schools must accept far more students with low test scores than under a race-based quota system.

Policy Relevance

Color-blind admissions policies distort admissions more than necessary, compared with racial quotas. Banning racial preferences in admissions has a high cost.

Main Points

  • Schools’ affirmative action plans are intended to ensure that children are exposed to different viewpoints, while allowing the school to offer a curriculum suited to students’ abilities.
  • The benefits of affirmative action depend on its effect on the number of minority students admitted, and whether the policy prevents the school from admitting desirable students.
  • The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) use a system based on socioeconomic status to allocate slots at elite exam high schools; slots are reserved for students from low-income neighborhoods.
  • The CPS system admits some students with low test scores, distorting the admission process by reducing the average score of admitted students.
    • The reduction in score is four or five times larger than the reduction that would result if the schools adopted policies that explicitly consider race.
    • The race-neutral policy is highly inefficient.
  • No race-neutral affirmative action plan could increase minority representation to 50%, but a plan that explicitly considers race could do this without significant reductions in average scores.
  • Under the CPS plan, some minority students with top scores are not admitted (even if they are from low-income households); as a result, the CPS plan doubles the gap between the average scores of students of different races.
  • Race neutral plans are less effective than minority quotas in increasing the proportion of low-income students at the schools.


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