Is Affirmative Action Harming Minority Groups More Than It Helps?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

Any discussion about affirmative action is incomplete without a discussion of learning mismatch. The evidence is pretty clear at this point that mismatch is real and producing negative outcomes. Here is a post that discusses it in the context of Fisher.

That post is by Richard Sander, an economist and law professor at UCLA who has spent more than a decade studying the theory of “mismatch”—when the college application of a student who benefitted from affirmative action is significantly weaker than the average student’s at the same college, and thus the AA student would be a better “match” at a less competitive school because he or she is more likely to thrive—both in college and after graduation. Sander argues that a mismatch ends up disadvantaging an AA student even more than if he or she had originally attended a less prestigious college. From his post:

A second form of mismatch—“competition” mismatch—occurs when students abandon particular fields, or college itself, because of the practical and psychological effects of competing with better-prepared students.

John McWhorter, the linguistics professor at Columbia who should contribute to The Atlantic more often, invoked Sander in a piece for CNN yesterday on the Fisher case:

Now, at this point, many object that despite the mismatch, the students excel nevertheless. Here is the rub: the data is in, and in crucial ways and too often, they do not.

At Duke University, economist Peter Arcidiacono, with Esteban Aucejo and Joseph Hotz, has shown that the “mismatch” lowers the number of black scientists. Black students at a school where teaching is faster and assumes more background than they have often leave the major in frustration, but would be less likely to have done so at a school prepared to instruct them more carefully.

UCLA law professor Richard Sander conclusively showed in 2004 that “mismatched” law students are much more likely to cluster in the bottom of their classes and, especially, to fail the bar exam. Meanwhile, Sander and Stuart Taylor’s book argues that the mismatch problem damages the performance of black and brown students in general.

There are scholars who dispute Sander and Taylor’s thesis about undergraduate school in general. However, when it comes to the more specific points about STEM subjects and law school, takedown arguments are harder to fashion because of the simple force of the facts.

The Atlantic published an excerpt from Sander and Taylor’s book when it came out three years ago. Here’s a portion that runs through some additional data:

Research on the mismatch problem was almost non-existent until the mid-1990s; it has developed rapidly in the past half-dozen years, especially among labor economists. To cite just a few examples of the findings:

  • Black college freshmen are more likely to aspire to science or engineering careers than are white freshmen, but mismatch causes blacks to abandon these fields at twice the rate of whites.
  • Blacks who start college interested in pursuing a doctorate and an academic career are twice as likely to be derailed from this path if they attend a school where they are mismatched.
  • About half of black college students rank in the bottom 20 percent of their classes (and the bottom 10 percent in law school).
  • Black law school graduates are four times as likely to fail bar exams as are whites; mismatch explains half of this gap.
  • Interracial friendships are more likely to form among students with relatively similar levels of academic preparation; thus, blacks and Hispanics are more socially integrated on campuses where they are less academically mismatched.

In response to that excerpt, The Atlantic ran two other pieces. First, Jordan Weissman looked at the mismatch issue “like an economist”:

In 2005, Harvard’s Roland Fryer and Brown University’s Glenn Loury published a paper titled “Affirmative Action and Its Mythologies,” which serves as a wonderful roadmap for considering the costs and benefits of letting schools factor race into their selection criteria. [...] Loury and Fryer acknowledged that if this [mismatch] problem truly turns out to be severe, it should give everyone pause. But they wondered themselves: If some minorities fail, could an affirmative action program still be worth it?

Take, for instance, law schools. Sander’s research has suggested the black law students often underperform their white peers, and drop out at higher rates, because they tend to end at schools they’re ill-prepared to attend. But from society’s perspective, those casualties might be justified by the overall goal of producing more black lawyers. One might retort that making sure black students are in suitable schools will lead more to graduate and take the bar. In the end, it’s a very cold, cost-benefit analysis, but one that should still be made.

The other Atlantic response was from Sarah Garland, who spotlighted “the story of two students at UT-Austin showing how race-based admissions can go right.” One of those students was Jarius Sowells, who automatically got a slot at UT because he fell within the top 10 percent of his high school class:

“I don’t think my high school prepared me very well to begin learning at this institution,” Sowells says. “It was a culture shock. I was around people who didn’t look like me, didn’t talk like me.” He signed up for several tough classes his first semester -- microeconomics, business foundations, introduction to psychology, and rhetoric. Within weeks he was failing. “I psychologically broke down,” he says. “I felt I couldn’t handle it.” The following semester he dropped out and returned home.

He didn’t give up completely, however. The following fall he was readmitted on probation. He began to build up his GPA, which is now a 2.7. He dropped his aspirations of majoring in business and switched to African-American studies. His plan is to become a lawyer; he’s counting on getting a high LSAT score to make up for his low grades. [...] And if he struggled at UT-Austin, he says, it’s not because the school should never have let him in; it’s because it should have taken more responsibility for helping him succeed. [...]

Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University who submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the 2003 case supporting affirmative action, believes the evidence on mismatch should be taken more seriously, but not to support an end to affirmative action. “It might mean that you do affirmative action differently, not that you don’t do it at all,” he said. At the same time, Arcidiacono said his research on minority students at Duke suggests that perhaps “colleges need to invest more to make sure they graduate.”

Today, the Facebook page for Jarius Sowells says he attended UT from 2009 to 2015 and stuck with African-American studies and is now living in Rio de Janeiro. I’ll reach out to him for more details. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts on academic mismatch or point me to some important scholarship I haven’t mentioned yet, drop me an email. Update from a reader with a gut reaction:

So if the educators running our most elite institutions can’t educate “mismatched” students, isn’t that a damning indictment of their capabilities? Or do they not think it’s their responsibility to do so? Because at the end of the day, this is about helping slightly challenged but otherwise bright students, and I simply can’t see why any institution would exempt themselves from that mission.