Affirmative Action and the Leadership Pipeline

58 Pages Posted: 24 May 2021 Last revised: 7 Feb 2023

See all articles by Joni Hersch

Joni Hersch

Vanderbilt University - Law School; IZA Institute of Labor Economics; Vanderbilt University - Owen Graduate School of Management; Vanderbilt University - College of Arts and Science - Department of Economics

Date Written: October 25, 2021


Race-conscious affirmative action in higher education admissions is currently permitted in order for universities to meet their compelling interest in pursuing the educational benefits of a diverse student body. But the legality of affirmative action, which plays a prominent role in creating a diverse student body at elite educational institutions, is under attack. I develop and provide an empirical basis for an expanded understanding of the educational benefits provided by affirmative action: namely, of fostering a pipeline of future societal leaders and professionals. Using data on nearly 500,000 college graduates, I demonstrate that the likelihood of earning a professional or graduate degree—an outcome that is closely linked to employment in influential positions—drops off dramatically in the universities attended by the majority of college graduates, as compared with elite universities that use affirmative action. Further, race is a relatively unimportant predictor of professional or graduate degree attainment among graduates of similarly elite schools. Curtailing race-conscious affirmative action would thereby exclude many students from underrepresented minority groups who would successfully earn professional and graduate degrees—and later, enter into influential positions that shape society.

Keywords: affirmative action, diversity, empirical evidence, elite education, leadership, lawyers, physicians

JEL Classification: I24, I28, J15, J18, J24, J44, K15

Suggested Citation

Hersch, Joni, Affirmative Action and the Leadership Pipeline (October 25, 2021). Completed Work published in 96 TUL. L. REV. (2021-2022), Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 21-23, Available at SSRN:

Joni Hersch (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

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IZA Institute of Labor Economics ( email )

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Vanderbilt University - Owen Graduate School of Management

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Vanderbilt University - College of Arts and Science - Department of Economics

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