A quota system is one of two different ways in which a policy of affirmative action may be implemented; it is the alternative to a system of preferential boosts.Under an affirmative action policy, membership in an identity group recognized as marginalized and underrepresented increases one’s chances of being selected to a desirable position—for example, admission into a prestigious educational institution, or employment in a respected organization. The increased access is accomplished under a quota system by reserving a certain share of the available positions for members of the relevant group, thus dividing the overall selection process into two separate competitions. Under a system of preferential boosts, by contrast, there is a single competition for access to the available positions, but some additional favorable consideration is given to group members in evaluating individual qualifications and thereby determining applicant rankings.
During the early period in which affirmative action policies were implemented in the United States—from the mid-1960s through the 1970s—quota systems were not uncommon, though affirmative action policies more often took the form of preferential boosts. In India, however, affirmative action has mainly taken the form of quota systems. In other countries where affirmative action is practiced, one can find varying combinations of the two systems.
Under a quota system, the number of available positions reserved for members of a marginalized identity group in a separate competition is most often set equal to the proportion of that group in the overall population of the country (or the relevant region or locality). Such proportionality need not necessarily, however, characterize a quota system of affirmative action; the number of reserved positions may be set at any level. Separate quotas and competitions may of course be established for members of more than one identity group. Whatever the criteria for ranking applicants, these criteria are applied separately to each group of applicants, and the highest-ranking applicants in each group are selected until the available positions are filled.
Under a quota system, the number of selected members of any group targeted by affirmative action will equal the size of the quota for that group—unless fewer group applicants actually apply. A variant of this kind of selection process is one that excludes from the reserved quota those applicants whose qualifications irrespective of group membership enable them to be selected in competition with all other applicants. In this case, all the group applicants who are selected to reserved seats rank lower, by the relevant ranking criteria, than those selected in the general competition, and the overall number of group applicants selected may well exceed the quota reserved for them.
A preferential boost system is applied somewhat differently to quantitative and to qualitative selection procedures. In a quantitative selection procedure, an applicant’s qualifications are summarized in an overall point score in order to determine his or her position in the rank order, and the preferential boost takes the form of a certain number of additional points credited to applicants from the targeted group. In the case of a qualitative selection procedure, a variety of applicant qualifications are taken into account but not formally aggregated into a single overall point score. In this case, the preferential boost takes a less precise form; for example, applicants from the targeted group could be viewed in a rosier light or given extra credit for signs of unrealized potential. Different degrees of preferential boost may of course be given to applicants from different groups. In any kind of preferential-boost system, one cannot be certain in advance how many applicants from each group will be selected.
The difference between a quota system and a preferential-boost system is not as great as it may first appear. Corresponding to a quota system that selects any given number of targeted group applicants for a particular position, there is bound to be some amount of preferential boost that leads to the same outcome. In the case of a selection process in which applicants’ qualifications are summarized in a single point score, the amount of preferential boost that would do so is the number of points needed to bring the marginal group applicant’s score up to the level that would make him or her the last applicant admitted in the general competition. (There is one minor exception to this rule: if the last applicant selected to fill a quota has qualifications equal to those of one or more of the top applicants who failed to be selected, then a preferential-boost system would have to either accept or reject all of the marginal applicants with equal qualifications.)
Notwithstanding the formal correspondence between quota and preferential-boost systems, there remains a substantive difference between the two systems insofar as the parameters of each kind of system—the size of the quota or the amount of the preferential boost—are held constant for a period of time. A preferential-boost system assures that the gap in conventional qualifications between targeted group applicants selected and other applicants selected does not vary much over time, while the number of the targeted group applicants selected will in all likelihood vary from one competition to the next. A quota system assures that the number (or the proportion) of targeted group applicants selected will remain constant, unless the quota is not filled, while the gap in conventional qualifications will likely vary considerably over time.
In practice, quota systems are often constrained by specification of minimum conventional qualifications (e.g., a minimum qualifying score) below which targeted group applicants will be rejected, even if their quota is not filled. Whenever such a minimum conventional qualifications requirement serves to keep the number of accepted applicants below or equal to the quota, this kind of constrained quota system has the same effect as a preferential-boost system in which the size of the preferential boost is equal to the gap between the minimum conventional qualifications required of a successful targeted applicant and the conventional qualifications of the last applicant admitted in the general competition. (If and when the preferential boost implied by a minimum qualifications requirement in a constrained quota system is not bind-ing—that is, if it alone would allow more applicants to be selected than the size of the quota—then there is, of course, a difference in outcome as between the constrained quota system and the corresponding preferential-boost system.)
A pure quota system is considerably more arbitrary than either a constrained quota system or a preferential-boost system of affirmative action. By focusing on a target number (or proportion) of group applicants to be selected, a pure quota system ignores problems likely to arise if the conventional qualifications gap between targeted group and other applicants selected becomes substantial. At the same time, however, it should be clear that the choice among a pure quota system, a constrained quota system, and a preferential-boost system is not the most critical choice for an affirmative action policy. Arguably the most important factor is the size of the explicit or implicit preferential boost involved in the policy, for this will affect the likelihood that affirmative action beneficiaries can succeed in performing well in the positions to which they have gained access.
SEE ALSO Affirmative Action
Fryer, Roland G., Jr., and Glenn C. Loury. 2005. Affirmative Action and Its Mythology. Journal of Economics Perspectives 19 (3): 147–162.
Weisskopf, Thomas. 2004. Affirmative Action in the United States and India: A Comparative Perspective. London: Routledge.
Thomas E. Weisskopf