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The downside of affirmative action: Academic mismatch

The Saturday WSJ featured an article by UCLA law professor/economist Richard Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor titled “The Unraveling of Affirmative Action,” based on their new book “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It.” Here’s an excerpt from the WSJ (emphasis mine):

For more than 40 years, the debate over affirmative action in admissions has focused on whether it amounts to unfair and unconstitutional reverse discrimination against whites (and now Asians). The implicit premise for most people on both sides has been that racial preferences bring only benefits and no costs, apart from the possible stigma of being deemed “affirmative-action admits,” to their black and Hispanic recipients. This premise was enough to make the two of us uncritical supporters of racial preferences until we began to examine the underlying facts.

Key to nurturing the myth that racial preferences can only help their recipients has been a strong norm among college administrators to play down both the size of preferences they use and the difficulties these students encounter down the road. This concealment has had the unfortunate effect of misleading students and shielding preference policies from close scrutiny.

But cracks of light have begun to leak through. 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).

The most encouraging part of this research is the parallel finding that these same students have dramatically better outcomes if they go to schools where their level of academic preparation is much closer to that of the median student. That is, black and Hispanic students excel when they avoid the problem of what has come to be called “mismatch.”

MP: The table above displays data from a 2006 study by the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) titled “Racial and Ethnic Preferences in Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Michigan,” and those data help to illustrate academic “mismatch,” which is a major defect of race-based preferences in college admissions, according to Sander and Taylor.  Here’s what the CEO data show:

1. With a high school GPA of 3.20 and an SAT score of 1240, blacks and Hispanics had much higher chances of being admitted to the University of Michigan in 2005 (92% and 88%, respectively) than Asians and whites with those same academic credentials (10% and 14%, respectively).

2. Once admitted though, black and Hispanic students at the University of Michigan earn lower GPAs than whites or Asians, and are much more likely to be on academic probation, and much less likely to qualify for the Honors Program.

Although not shown in the chart, there are also huge differences in graduation rates by race that provide further evidence of academic mismatch at  the University of Michigan.  In 2006, 89% of white students at Michigan graduated within 6 years, while only 68% of black students graduated in that time frame, which is a huge 21% graduation rate race gap (source).

Without race-based special preferences in admissions at the University of Michigan, black and Hispanic students admitted to UM would still attend college, but would study at less-selective schools like Michigan State, Wayne State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan or Western Michigan, all very highly regarded public universities in Michigan. At those less selective schools, it’s very likely that minority students would earn higher GPAs, be less likely to be placed on academic probation and more likely to qualify for an Honors Program, and more likely to graduate, compared to the University of Michigan.

Universities frequently highlight the number of minority students entering their institutions as freshman but are generally much less enthusiastic about sharing data on the negative effects of affirmation action resulting from academic mismatch that show up in lower GPAs, lower graduation rates, and lower overall academic success.  When race-based preferences result in academic mismatch, affirmative action ends up being a real disservice to many of those students who would have had much greater academic success at a less selective university.  If the Supreme Court rules that affirmative action is unconstitutional, it won’t reduce the number of minority students attending college, but it will greatly increase their chances of attending colleges where academic success, and graduation, are much more likely.

Thanks to Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor for bringing attention to an important issue that deserves much greater consideration.

8 thoughts on “The downside of affirmative action: Academic mismatch

  1. I seem to recall one of those behavior experiments from my college psychology classes. They gave quiz questions to hundreds of college students. Each student was told immediately whether they got the question right or wrong. One group, though, was told that they had more correct answers than they really did. Then in a subsequent flight where the scores were reported accurately, the “inflated” group actually did worse than those who had been given accurate feedback all along.

  2. I don’t think most of those who push affirmative action actually care about the results. They are most interested in making public displays of atonement. It’s the same reason the Prius so outsells other hybrids. Other hybrids save just as much gasoline, but your friends and neighbors won’t as readily recognize that you’re driving one.

  3. Yeah, there are plenty of reasons to abolish AA. Academic mismatch is one of them.

    But I would hope the conservative case against AA is based on facts and principles, not emotions.

    What I mean is that AA should be abolished because from a conservative(and frankly constitutional) perspective, it’s illegal. Morally and politically: it is a racist policy.

    Instead, so many conservatives get wrapped up in bizarre “I have to save minorities from themselves” rants which clearly miss the fact that minorities(by which I mean non-Asian minorities, or NAMs) actually like AA a lot, and they like it for rational reasons. It is in their own self-interest.

    Now, it isn’t in the *nation’s interest* to not have the most meritocratic system in place as we can have(and that includes abolishing the whole legacy pork barrel trading that rich donors engage in, with the good memory of the Ivies, to get a spot for their children) .

    But what may be bad for the nation may be good for individuals or individual groups.

    And, it is my contention, that any policy should be judged on its merits not how it benefits one particular group or the other(or meaningless “save the NAMs from themselves” kind of psychology, so often associated with liberals which some conservatives seem to mimic), but rather how does this policy benefit the nation as a whole, and furthermore, is it principled and constitutional?

    Something which is not raceblind, but actively discriminates on race is by definition an anti-American policy to its core, no matter how much the left tries to dress it up.

    Trying to blame slavery 150+ years later gets you nowhere.

    • You keep hammering at this “racist” (and I’ll add “sexist”) point. It is.

      But, like all institutionalized racism, it hurts the people it’s trying to help. There’s no “saving minorities from themselves” rant anywhere in sight. It’s all in your head.

      We point out that the policies that hurt minorities and women because it’s true. You don’t seem to understand that point despite pretending to agree with the harm of mismatch.

      AA hurts everyone – including the groups it’s targeting for “help”.

      And wtf is “the nation as a whole”, anyway but an aggregate of all individuals in it? If AA helps nobody, then it can’t possibly help “the nation as a whole”.

  4. I appreciated that the authors exposed the failure of Affirmative Action to achieve the goals expressed by those who support AA. Sadly, though, in the end Taylor and Sander still argued for “better” Affirmative Action:

    “We badly need a simpler, more coherent and more workable set of rules about affirmative action.”

    One of their proposed improvements:

    “Racial preferences should not be permitted to exceed the size of a school’s socioeconomic preferences”

    In response to their proposal, I ask: Why are preferences of any sort desirable?

  5. This data screams to me that everyone should avoid a bIack doctor, lawyer or other professional at all cost.

    Why invite the failure of race-based affirmative action into your life and put you and your family at risk? There are consequence, you can’t rig success, so just say no.

  6. In 2006, 89% of white students at Michigan graduated within 6 years, while only 68% of black students graduated in that time frame, which is a huge 21% graduation rate race gap (source).

    The graduation rate race gap is the same at Michigan or Michigan State and the graduation rate is lower at Michigan State.

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