Ending Affirmative Action May Hurt White Students

02/06/2008 05:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ever been tempted to park in a handicapped spot? You feel like an idiot driving around in circles when there's a perfectly good spot-close to the door no less!-sitting there empty. After all, you've had a hard day, maybe even a hard life. Don't you deserve a good parking spot as much as the next guy? If it weren't for that damn sign, it would be yours.

Professor Thomas Kane famously used this metaphor to describe how many people feel about affirmative action in college admissions. When we see (or know about) a "reserved" spot, we assume that it would be ours without this artificial restriction. Of course, when you think about it, that whole concept is ridiculous. If the parking lot is packed, the likelihood of you getting a newly unreserved, front-of-the-lot spot is very low.

White students are learning that the same logic applies to race-based affirmative action in college admissions. A new report to be published this week in InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies finds that Asian Americans -- not whites-gain the most when affirmative action policies are eliminated at selective colleges. The findings are based on enrollment trends from 1990 to 2005 at public colleges in California, Florida and Texas, three states that banned raced-based affirmative action in the late 1990s.

Though people of all backgrounds fall on different sides of the affirmative action debate, resistance to this policy is strongest in white communities, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. What happened in California, Florida, and Texas could be a case of "be careful what you wish for." The report finds that the percentage of white students in relation to the student body as a whole declined slightly after race-based affirmative action was eliminated from admissions policies.

According to researchers, African Americans fared the worst of any group after changes in admissions policies, especially in California. In 1995, 6.5 percent of Berkeley students were black compared with only 3 percent in 2005. The drop was even steeper at UCLA, where the percentage of black students fell from 7.3 percent to 2.7 percent in the same period of time.

It looks like Asian Americans stepped up to fill these spots. Asian American enrollment jumped from 37.3 percent to 46.6 percent at Berkeley between 1995 and 2005; other selective UC schools reported similar results.

The results were more mixed for Hispanics, where enrollment at Berkeley and UCLA dropped significantly but increased substantially at UCSD and in Florida and Texas. According to the researchers, these gains were partially driven by population growth and socioeconomic factors.

As competition for a spot at a top college increases, debates over legacy preferences in college admissions are likely to become even more contentious. It's easy to see why many white people will fight to preserve the old order. Like grandfather voting clauses in the Jim Crowe South, ya can't get invited to the party if your granddaddy wasn't there. And non-whites were almost never invited back then.

One thing's for sure: as the battle for top college territory continues to heat up, it's likely to get ugly. The "haves" are going to have to push that much harder to keep on having.