Does Racial Diversity “Yield Educational Benefits”?

August 16th, 2021 / By

The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions programs in higher education–but only on the ground that racial diversity improves the quality of education. Supporters and opponents of affirmative action have both criticized this rationale. Opponents deride diversity as a euphemism that masks racial quotas. Supporters protest that the concept sidesteps the original rationale for affirmative action: to recognize and remediate the discrimination that people of color have suffered–and continue to suffer–in our society. As Melissa Murray has written, rosy hued images of “diversity” insist that “changes must benefit everyone–even as we compensate for past offenses that were strictly visited upon a few.”

I share this dissatisfaction with the diversity rationale. It seems like yet another attempt to ignore the racial discrimination of our past and present. Yet, since the courts seem wedded to this rationale, it is worth asking whether it holds water. Does racial diversity “yield educational benefits,” as Justice O’Connor maintained in Grutter? The question has taken on urgency as the Supreme Court ponders a petition for certiorari in a case challenging Harvard’s admissions processes.

Spurred by this context, Adam Chilton, Justin Driver, Jonathan Masur, and Kyle Rozema designed a test of the proposition that diversity programs yield educational benefits. They focused on top law reviews that have adopted diversity programs over the last 50 years and asked: Did law reviews that adopted these programs enjoy a rise in scholarly impact (as measured by citation counts) after they adopted these programs?

The short answer is “yes,” providing an important boost to claims that diversity enhances education–as well as to advocates of diversity programs on law reviews. Now let’s look at the study in more detail.

Who, What, When?

The coauthors studied the flagship law reviews at the top 20 law schools (as ranked by U.S. News in March 2018). They gathered extensive data, through archival research and direct communications with law review editors, on all changes to diversity policies at these reviews. Among these 20 journals, Berkeley adopted the first diversity policy (in 1969) and amended their policy most often (seven times). Chicago, Duke, and Stanford were the most recent to adopt a diversity policy (in 2017). Four of the 20 reviews (Texas, USC, Vanderbilt, and Washington University) had not adopted a diversity policy when the coauthors closed their data collection in 2018.

Using sophisticated econometric methods, the coauthors estimate that journals adopting a diversity policy enjoyed a 25% increase in median citations to articles they published. These estimates compare articles published during the 5 years before adoption of the policy with those published 5 years after the policy was adopted. This conclusion held up in numerous versions of the analysis.

Notably, the increase was not due to changes in the subject matter of the published articles. Law review editors chosen after adoption of diversity policies did not accept more articles in highly cited fields like discrimination or civil rights. Instead, they appeared to choose more impactful articles across legal fields.

Correlation or Causation?

The researchers demonstrate a correlation between adoption of a diversity policy and publication of more highly cited articles, but do they show that the one caused the other? Not conclusively–conclusive proof of causation is difficult to establish in social science research. But the correlation they establish is quite persuasive. Their analytic technique did not just examine citations before and after a policy change; it compared journals adopting a diversity policy with those that did not adopt a policy during the same time period.

The citation increases identified by these researchers, in other words, do not reflect a general trend of increased citations. Instead, these increases were significantly more likely to occur for journals that had adopted a diversity policy. That fact, combined with the coauthors’ rigorous approach to the data, persuades me that there is some connection.


In addition to noting the distinction between correlation and causation, the researchers acknowledge at least two caveats to their findings. First, citations do not necessarily reflect an article’s quality; their analyses do not show that journals published “better” articles after adopting a diversity policy. Citations, however, are a fairly good measure of an article’s impact–and both journals and scholars care about impact. An increase in citation counts signals something positive about a journal’s selection process, even if it doesn’t prove that the articles were “better” than the articles selected by previous editors.

Second, the researchers admit that they did not attempt to distinguish among diversity policies. Journals have adopted a wide range of approaches, and this study lumps all of them into a single category. It is possible that only a subset of policies generated the observed increase in citation counts. This caveat doesn’t trouble me much. As the coauthors note, treating diversity policies as a single category likely understates the effect of any variants driving the correlation. With evidence that diversity policies have positive effects, later research can probe distinctions among the policies themselves.

What Do We Make of This?

I draw two lessons from this thoughtful study. First, the analysis supports the decision that many journals have made to adopt diversity policies. Those policies have not hurt the selection or editing of professional articles; on the contrary, the policies correlate with increased impact of those articles. And if diversity policies improve the impact of professional articles, they probably also improve note-writing, editing, and other intellectual activities on the journal. Those activities, like article selection, center on collegial discussion and evaluation of ideas. Journals that lack diversity policies should consider implementing them, both to provide opportunities to students from groups that suffer from ongoing discrimination and to improve the quality of intellectual work on the journal.

Second, this work provides strong support for the argument that diversity yields educational benefits more broadly in higher education. At first I was skeptical of that claim by the coauthors. Could the rarefied world of article selection on law reviews tell us anything about education more generally?

But by the end of the article, these coauthors persuaded me. As they point out, “the law review selection process involves reasoning, deliberation, and analysis similar to that which characterizes higher education more generally.” In choosing among articles, the editors examine the arguments in each article closely. They also evaluate the novelty of each article and the importance of the problem it addresses. These intellectual tasks are ones that we also nourish in classrooms and student lounges; they are the lifeblood of higher education. Is it surprising that students with different life experiences deepen those discussions?


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