Affirmative action is on the ropes once again, and deservedly so. Despite protests to the contrary, universities routinely admit less qualified black and Hispanic students over better qualified whites and Asians -- all in the name of diversity. Last week, a federal court struck down an affirmative action plan at the University of Michigan Law School, and two similar cases from Washington and Texas law schools may be on the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the problem isn't confined to law schools. The Center for Equal Opportunity, a public policy group I head, recently released a study of undergraduate admissions at 47 public colleges and universities showing that racial preferences are both widespread and dramatic, with minority students admitted through affirmative action programs often poorly prepared to compete in their new academic environment.
But nowhere are racial preferences more dangerous than in medical schools. And now CEO has found evidence that racial preferences are determining who gets into medical school, where the stakes for the public welfare are far higher than in colleges or law schools. Using freedom of information laws, CEO obtained admissions data from publicly funded medical schools across the country and, this week, released a detailed study of how affirmative action operates at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, with more studies to follow. What we found was that even the best prepared black students admitted to the Maryland medical school had test scores and science grades no better than or, in many cases, worse than the least prepared Hispanic, Asian and white students admitted. (The full study is available at www. ceousa.org)
Overall, the relative odds of admission of a black medical student with identical grades and test scores to a white student were nearly 21-to-1 in 1999 at Maryland. To put this figure in some perspective, consider that the odds of a smoker getting cancer over someone who doesn't smoke are roughly 14-to-1. And the disparities don't end once students are admitted. The median first and second year grades for black medical students was 2.5, while for whites and Asians, the median was 3.17, and for Hispanics, 3.0. Although black students' grades caught up somewhat by the third or fourth year, this may be because many blacks dropped out. Only 68 percent of black students admitted ultimately graduated, whereas 82 percent of whites graduated.
What's more, of those students who stayed in the program, black students were far less likely to pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination. Almost one-in-four failed the first step of the test, taken after the first two years of medical school, whereas only two whites (out of 81) failed. Of those students who took the second part of the licensing exam in their fourth year, no whites or Asians failed, but about one quarter of blacks did. Even among those students who passed both tests, black students had lower overall scores than Hispanics, Asians or whites.
For years, college administrators have been trying to convince us that affirmative action is good for everyone: Good for black students who wouldn't otherwise be admitted and good for whites, who benefit from a more diverse educational experience. Those arguments are dubious, at best, for undergraduate education, but they make no sense whatsoever for medical schools. Nor does the evidence suggest that minority medical graduates are more likely to practice in under-served, low-income communities, another argument made in favor of affirmative action.
In the end, racial preferences hurt not only those who are excluded because of them but even the intended beneficiaries. Blacks who are admitted under affirmative action programs to competitive colleges for which they are poorly prepared more often fail to graduate. These students are cheated of the chance to succeed at an institution better matched to their skills and preparation. But the problems of racial preferences in medical school admission are even worse. There are no shortcuts to increasing the number of black doctors available, which requires better and earlier science education for black students. But holding future doctors to lower standards because of their skin color is not the right way and undermines the quality of medical care available for everyone.