Study Finds Bans on Race-Sensitive College Admissions Had Impact on Public Health

A new study led by Atheendar Venkataramani, an assistant professor of medicine and medical ethics and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, finds a correlation between states that have banned the use of race in the college admissions process and the health of students from underrepresented groups in those states.

Between 1996 and 2013, nine states banned the consideration of race in college admission decisions at public colleges and universities. They are: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington. (Washington State repealed its ban earlier this year.)

The researchers analyzed data from the 1991–2015 U.S. National Youth Risk Behavior Survey to investigate health risk behaviors such as tobacco and alcohol use. The researchers compared changes in self-reported cigarette and alcohol use among over 35,000 students residing in states enacting bans versus those residing in states without bans.

Overall, self-reported rates of smoking among underrepresented minority 11th and 12th graders increased by 3.8 percentage points in the same years each of the states discussed, passed, and implemented the bans, compared to those living in states with no bans. The researchers also found apparent increases among underrepresented minority students in rates of alcohol use and binge drinking.

“We know that affirmative action bans reduce the likelihood of underrepresented high school students being admitted to selective colleges,” says Dr. Venkataramani. “What this study shows us is that reducing their chances to attend a top college — and potentially undermining their expectations of upward mobility, more generally — may also increase their risk of engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or excessive alcohol use.”

The full study, “College Affirmative Action Bans and Smoking and Alcohol Use Among Underrepresented Minority Adolescents in the United States: A Difference-in-Differences Study,” was published on PLOS Medicine. It may be accessed here.

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