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Compensatory Sponsorship in Higher Education1

University of California, Davis

The author evaluates the extent to which colleges and universities of varying degrees of selectivity engage in racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic affirmative action for cohorts of students who graduated high school in 1972, 1982, and 1992. The author finds that a much wider range of institutions engage in affirmative action for African‐American students than previous analysts reported, and that a growing number of institutions extend the benefits of affirmative action to Hispanic students. Colleges and universities are markedly less enthusiastic about engaging in affirmative action for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. To understand why postsecondary institutions prefer students from particular minority groups over otherwise comparable white students, the author introduces the concept of compensatory sponsorship (building on Turner’s ideal‐type of sponsored mobility). In a contest system perceived by many to disadvantage some competitors unfairly, college personnel engage in affirmative action both to right a perceived wrong and to preserve the legitimacy of the contest. The beneficiaries of compensatory sponsorship, however, are determined by historical and social forces that constrain how postsecondary institutions recruit, admit, and fund potential matriculants.