Reservation in higher education works as intended: Study


A pioneering study published in the American Economic Review dismisses the commonly held belief that reservation policy harms the intended beneficiaries by placing them in academic situations for which they are ill-prepared and not suited. It also finds that reservation increases the college enrolment rates of disadvantaged groups.

The study was conducted by Surendrakumar Bagde from the Indian Administrative Service and two economists from the Carnegie Mellon University — Dennis Epple and Lowell Taylor. Examining the college matriculation and academic success of students in more than 200 private non-profit engineering colleges in a large State (with a population of more than 80 million) in India, researchers find that affirmative action policy works largely as intended. This is the first time when a study has been conducted on such a large scale.

The State in consideration has 15 per cent seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs), 6 per cent for Scheduled Tribes (STs) and 25 per cent for Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

Further, one-third of seats within each caste group, including the general category, are reserved for women. The study has three major findings.

First, the study found that affirmative action dramatically increases the enrolment of men and women belonging to disadvantaged castes. It states that around 72 per cent of the total 1,558 SC women currently enrolled would not have attended engineering college without reservation.

This is because reservation enables the applicants to attend college, who otherwise would not have been admitted. However, though enrolment increases due to reservation, the proportion of most disadvantaged castes attending college is smaller than their population shares. Based on previous research conducted by Fryer, Loury and Yuret (2007), which found that affirmative action incentivises and increases pre-college effort by targeted beneficiaries, the study says that these proportions would likely have been even lower in the absence of affirmative action.

Second, it was found that while scores in the first-year test are relatively lower for the most disadvantaged castes, affirmative action enhances the academic success of SC and ST students, who experience the largest increase in achievement. To conduct this analysis, the researchers made use of student performance on standardised entrance and high-school completion examinations and test scores collected after the first year in college. Interestingly, women, on an average, perform better than men on the first-year test even though both genders score very similar on high school and entrance exams.

Third, the study dispels the argument that students from disadvantaged castes graduate at lower rates than they would have in the absence of affirmative action policies, as they might find themselves in academic situations for which they are not well prepared –being clubbed with students who scored higher in entrance exams. Well, the students of targeted castes indeed have lower rates of on-time graduation. But researchers find no compelling evidence that the lower rate is due to “mismatch” induced via reservation policy.

A model that isolates the impact of affirmative action was developed and no statistically significant link was found between priority given at time of admissions and on-time graduation. Other factors that can affect success in college — such as financial duress, family obligation, or other personal issues — might vary across caste, says the study. Overall, 90 per cent women and 75 per cent men graduate on time. Based on previous research, the study notes that “while affirmative action works as intended in the large system of engineering colleges we study, this does not rule out the possibility that mismatch nonetheless exists in the most elite colleges.”

The study also finds that improved educational outcomes for targeted students come at a cost to those who do not receive preferential treatment, the prime reason why affirmative action policies generate debate. It was found that an additional 5,702 male students of general category, apart from the 16,487 that are currently enrolled, would have got an admission in the State engineering colleges if affirmative action was absent.

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