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.