Despite these findings, racial gaps in outcomes still exist. In Ivy League schools, six-year graduation rates for blacks and Hispanics tend to lag slightly behind those of whites and Asians (although often by only a couple of percentage points). At public flagships, which tend to have fewer resources for supporting struggling students, especially after budget-tightening during the recession, the gaps are worse: At UT-Austin, for example, 66 percent of blacks graduated within six years in 2010, compared to 83 percent of whites.
A small but vocal minority has seized onto such data over the last decade. "The guys who are arguing that mismatch is a hoax are being dishonest," says Richard Sander, who is a law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and one of the main proponents of the theory. Sander's own research on mismatch has been called into question by his peers--including several nationally prominent statisticians who submitted a brief to the Supreme Court this year devoted almost exclusively to picking apart his work. But Sander has also mustered the work of others to support his argument that minorities are harmed by affirmative action as now practiced.
In one controversial study published last year, a Duke University economist, Peter Arcidiacono, found that while black students at Duke are able improve their grades relative to white students over the course of their college careers, they are also much more likely to switch out of tougher majors in the natural sciences and into easier majors in the social sciences or humanities. (The findings may not carry over to other institutions: An analysis by UT-Austin physics professor Michael Marder, not yet made public, finds that the school's black students are more persistent than whites in natural-science majors.)
"You're getting this trade-off shifting students to the more selective institutions," Arcidiacono said at a September panel organized by Sander and hosted by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., to present new research supporting mismatch. "Maybe it's more important that Harvard is more diverse than a university more toward the bottom, but those trade-offs have to be made absolutely clear."
For Jarius Sowells, an African-American student from Dallas, the transition to academic life at UT-Austin was much more difficult than it was for Tedra Jacobs. Sowells, like many black and Hispanic students in the country, attended a high school that was made up mostly of minority and low-income students. "More than half dropped out," Sowells says of his classmates. "Overall, the teachers had apathetic attitudes."
Sowells graduated in the top 10 percent of his class and was automatically admitted to UT-Austin, his top choice. He planned to major in business. But Sowells didn't know what to expect on his first day of college classes. His older brothers, who are twins, had enrolled in much less selective colleges, and neither of his parents had earned more than a high school diploma. "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."