Affirmative Action ‘Mismatch’

Back to December 2012 Ed Reporter

Affirmative Action ‘Mismatch’

Since its beginnings, affirmative action has been touted as a system that aids black and Hispanic students with little or no drawbacks for its recipients. While some have argued that affirmative action unintentionally and unfairly discriminates against whites, it has been generally accepted that the system is purely beneficial for racial minorities. Recent research, however, is indicating otherwise.

Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr. are the authors of the recently published book Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It. In their Wall Street Journal article “The Unraveling of Affirmative Action,” Sander and Taylor write that: “At selective schools, more than 80% of blacks, and two-thirds of Hispanics, have received at least moderately large admissions preferences . . . the equivalent of at least a 100-point SAT boost, and often much more.”

The authors go on to say, “There is now increasing evidence that students who receive large preferences of any kind — whether based on race, athletic ability, alumni connections or other considerations — experience some clear negative effects: Students end up with poor grades (usually in the bottom fifth of their class), lower graduation rates, extremely high attrition rates from science and engineering majors, substantial self-segregation on campus, lower self-esteem and far greater difficulty passing licensing tests (such as bar exams for lawyers).”

These negative effects, Sander and Taylor explain, result from a “mismatch” between the students’ academic preparation and the schools’ standards. When students are admitted to a school because of an artificial boost such as affirmative action, they often (though, of course, not always) find themselves unable to excel at the institution and often even drop out of more difficult academic programs.

In contrast, University of Virginia psychologists Fred Smyth and John McArdle demonstrated that students who received large preferences but avoided mismatch because they chose less-elite schools were 80% more likely to complete degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Other researchers have explored the diverse impacts of this frequent mismatch between a “preferred” student’s academic preparation and that of the institution’s median student. In the book Increasing Faculty Diversity, authors and sociologists Stephen Cole and the late Elinor Barber attribute the lower percentage of professors who are black (compared to those who are white) to this mismatch and the resulting decrease in mismatched students’ academic self-confidence and aspirations.

In 2011, Duke University professor Peter Arcidiacono and his colleagues conducted a study in which they found that students tended to become friends with the classmates whom they saw as “academically similar” to themselves. They found that when minority students encounter a mismatch at their school, they often self-segregate. Through study of multiple schools, Arcidiacono and his colleagues concluded that decreasing admission preferences would increase the likelihood of cross-racial friendships even if it decreased the number of black and Hispanic students at the most elite schools.

Sander and Taylor, who confirmed these findings with their own research, explained: “It is, of course, not surprising that the large performance gaps on campus that highly correlate with race tend to foster — rather than undermine — racial stereotypes.”

Sander and Taylor extol the University of California system’s race-neutral admissions policy (established in 1998) and cite its success: “Black, American-Indian, and Hispanic students made up 26% of all U.C. freshmen in 2010, up from 16% in 1997 . . . while the number [of black and Hispanic students] with GPAs above 3.5 rose 63%.”

Mismatch also emphasizes that the disparity between different races’ academic performance levels needs to be addressed before students reach university age. The authors explain that “[a]ccording to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average black 12th-grader is on par with the average white 8th-grader.” Sander and Taylor predict that this appalling disparity will take decades of education reform to fix.

Declaring that universities are too invested in affirmative action to change course while politicians are afraid to speak out against it for fear of being labeled as racist, Sander and Taylor call upon the Supreme Court to reform racial-preference systems when they decide Fisher v. Texas, a case that concerns affirmative action policies at the University of Texas. Sander and Taylor propose a variety of changes including: more transparency between academic admissions departments and prospective students; an increased focus on socioeconomic preferences above racial preferences; and a mandate to discontinue the use of race-based scholarships. They explain that these changes will not solve the problems affirmative action causes, “but they will set us on the path to more honest policies and inquiry.” Wall Street Journal, 10-13-2012