Why racial preferences in college admissions hurt minority students -- and shroud the education system in dishonesty.
Affirmative action in university admissions started in the late 1960s as a noble effort to jump-start racial integration and foster equal opportunity. But somewhere along the decades, it has lost its way.
Over time, it has become a political lightning rod and one of our most divisive social policies. It has evolved into a regime of racial preferences at almost all selective schools -- preferences so strikingly large and politically unpopular that administrators work hard to conceal them. The largest, most aggressive preferences are usually reserved for upper-middle-class minorities on whom they often inflict significant academic harm, whereas more modest policies that could help working-class and poor people of all races are given short shrift. Academic leaders often find themselves flouting the law and acting in ways that aggravate the worst consequences of large preferences. They have become prisoners of a system that many privately deplore for its often-perverse unintended effects but feel they cannot escape.
The single biggest problem in this system -- a problem documented by a vast and growing array of research -- is the tendency of large preferences to boomerang and harm their intended beneficiaries. Large preferences often place students in environments where they can neither learn nor compete effectively -- even though these same students would thrive had they gone to less competitive but still quite good schools.
The student who would flourish at, say, Wake Forest, instead finds himself at Duke, where the professors are not teaching at a pace designed for him.
We refer to this problem as "mismatch," a word that largely explains why, even though blacks are more likely to enter college than are whites with similar backgrounds, they will usually get much lower grades, rank toward the bottom of the class, and far more often drop out. Because of mismatch, racial preference policies often stigmatize minorities, reinforce pernicious stereotypes, and undermine the self-confidence of beneficiaries, rather than creating the diverse racial utopias so often advertised in college campus brochures.