According to a leading economist, the public debate over affirmative action’s role in higher education is missing the point, and could actually lead to worse academic outcomes for students who get a boost from a college’s affirmative-action policies. That view, however, is hotly contested by a wide range of scholars.

Richard Sander, an economist at UCLA’s law school, told a group of education journalists last month, that the public conversation about admissions policies that consider race wrongly defines the key terms of the debate.

The question shouldn’t be whether black or Latino students do better in the nation’s top colleges than they would at less competitive colleges. Highly selective schools like Yale or Cornell have high graduation rates for all their students. Instead, Sander says the public dialogue should focus on how students with similar test scores fare in colleges with differing degrees of admissions selectivity. To him and other supporters of the idea of “mismatch”—that attending a tougher school may at times negatively affect a student—the question to ask is this: Do students at more selective colleges whose test scores are lower than their peers’ perform worse academically than students with similar scores at less selective colleges?

The concept of mismatch was further muddled by what many people viewed as a poor choice of words by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in comments he made during the second hearing of the University of Texas v. Fisher case about the use of race in college admissions. “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less­ advanced school, a slower­-track school where they do well,” the recently deceased justice said.

“Mismatch is a not a racial effect, Mr. Scalia’s unfortunate comments to the contrary,” said Sander. “Mismatch is something that affects all groups.”

The Fisher case is politically contentious, with liberals largely in favor of the use of racial preferences in admissions and conservatives against it. When Scalia inelegantly referred to the mismatch theory in his remarks opposing race-conscious admissions, he was attempting to summarize the theory Sander has explored. But the UCLA professor said he actually supports the use of race in admissions when necessary. “Many of the people who do research on this, including me, think that racial preferences are also desirable and should be part of any system that we have—as long as we’re paying close attention to whether there are harmful side effects, boomerang effects, in the process,” he said.

Sander, who co-wrote the book Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, cited several studies that give credence to the idea of mismatch. His own work focuses on students’ college grades and class ranks rather than graduation rates because he argues researchers can make better conclusions about what hurts or helps a student academically. He also says universities may be compelled to weaken their graduation requirements to show that more non-white students are graduating.

His famous 2005 study that looked at racial preferences for black students at elite law schools found that when black students were able to attend schools that were highly selective, their grades were often near the bottom of the barrel compared to their elite law school peers. He also found that law school students admitted with racial preferences had higher dropout rates. Still, he calculated that racial preferences expanded the enrollment of black law students “by only 14 percent.”

The findings were met with a flurry of criticism. One scholar wrote in response that “black law students who are similarly qualified when applying to law school perform equally well on the bar irrespective of what tier school they attend. There is no evidence that affirmative action reduces the bar performance of the students it is designed to help.”

In the book Mismatch, Sander and his co-author recommend that colleges provide admitted students witgh data on how past students with similar high school grades and SAT scores performed in college. The transparency, they argue, would help students determine if they’re academically ready to take on the challenges of that school or particular major.

In recent years, Sander has sued universities, including his own, to get them to disclose data that would enable comparisons between their students’ scores on the law school entrance exam—LSAT—and their success on the bar exam. Early data suggests students with the same LSAT scores are less likely to pass their bar exams after attending more selective law schools and are more likely to pass the bar exam at less selective universities.

Proponents of mismatch also argue that students who may be out of their academic leagues at high-ranked universities choose to opt out of certain majors, like physics or math, in favor of disciplines that are less rigorously graded. That line of reasoning has been attacked by other scholars.

Other mismatch data is mixed. A 2012 summary of the literature found that students who enroll at institutions where the student body is largely more academically prepared tend to have higher graduation rates than they otherwise would but lower class ranks and grade-point averages. The same study concluded that after accounting for “a student’s race, socioeconomic background, and one important indicator of college readiness (SAT score), college-completion rates increase as the level of school selectivity increases.”

The mismatch debate has larger implications. Because the U.S. population is becoming less white, policies that support the academic achievement of black and Latino students are vital to the nation’s economic success, said William Kidder, associate vice chancellor at UC Riverside. “Because under-represented minorities are a large part of our society, if too many are left behind, in terms of graduating, doing well beyond college, America itself will not be able to do all that it can on the world stage,” he said at the event.

Kidder also cited research that suggests students at diverse campuses experience cognitive growth through interacting with different racial and cultural groups. He was a co-author of a review of research that largely rejected the premise of mismatch, finding that there’s little evidence that students with lower high-school grades and test scores are better off attending less selective schools. Sander strongly repudiated Kidder’s analysis. “I contend that this is not a serious work of scholarship, but is instead a polemic authored by Zealots,” he wrote in a paper in 2014.

The definitions that are central to the debate over racial preferences can overlap, but keeping them in order is key. Affirmative action means giving a group of students some kind of preference, like for students who are poor or come from certain zip codes. Racial preferences are just that—admissions policies that take into account an applicant’s race. The role of mismatch in this debate is to determine whether students who are admitted with the aid of admissions preferences—like race, income, or being related to alumni—perform well academically despite at times having lower grades and college-entrance test scores than the average scores for the incoming class of students at a particular college.

There are two more related concepts—overmatching and undermatching. An undermatched student is someone whose academic performance in high school exceeds those of fellow students at a particular college, suggesting that the student could have gotten into a more selective university but for various reasons did not. Overmatched students are the opposite—those whose high school performances suggest they may struggle in a more selective school and are better off at a less challenging college.

A 2013 study found most college students are either undermatched or overmatched, and it’s the students themselves who choose to attend colleges that are either below or above their academic skills—suggesting college-admissions counselors have a smaller effect on the actual composition of college campuses than previously thought. Cost issues can lead high-performing students to enroll at the less selective school, while overmatching tends to occur because parents and students may feel confident a more selective school yields larger academic benefits. But belief may not align with actual outcomes, the authors note in a 2015 paper. “Just because we find evidence that more informed students and their families think college quality trumps concerns about overmatch does not make it so. Students and parents believe lots of things contrary to the evidence; this particular belief might belong to that set,” they wrote.

And academic preparedness is not necessarily the only consideration colleges are making, said Rutgers University law professor Stacy Hawkins in a scholarly interview that included Sander. “Many colleges and universities consider the ability to amass sufficient racial and ethnic diversity among their student bodies as essential to their educational and institutional missions,” she said. “Thus, race-consciousness is not an exception to the otherwise routine functioning of the admissions process for those schools, but is an indispensable part of it.


This article appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.