In response, some indignant conservative media critics declared that “mismatch theory” is “a taboo subject for the MSM” and that “the left” is made up of “contemptible liars” who are “terming Scalia a racist” because “the left’s ugly belief that subjective hurt somehow trumps statistical fact means that he must be labeled a bigot.”
If the underlying subject were inconsequential, America’s red and blue tribes could watch the uncharitable back-and-forth, get their respective serotonin boosts, and depart with the satisfaction of feeling superior to their ideological adversaries. As is often the case, however, the hyperbolic sniping that emerged from the political culture of stigma-and-outrage junkies muddied an important debate about a subject that deserves to be engaged cooly, rigorously, and constructively.
After all, many institutions of higher education give admissions boosts for non-academic characteristics, including race, athletic ability, musical talent, leadership potential, geographic diversity, and having parents who are alumni. It would be beneficial for the relevant admissions officers to have empirical answers to questions like, “Does an admitted student’s graduation rate change predictably depending on how many standard deviations they are from the mean SAT score or GPA?”
Colleges can hardly avoid provisional, working answers to that question. And there are cases in which nearly everyone either agrees with, or rejects, “mismatch theory.” If Harvard’s admissions team unexpectedly decided to admit ten students, never mind their race, who scored in the bottom 10 percent on the SAT, everyone would expect those students to fail. If Duke admitted 10 students of any race who scored a single percentile lower than the school average on the SAT, no one would expect that tranche of students to fail out of the university at a higher rate. Admissions officers regularly say about people of all races, “I’m impressed by this young person, but their ACT score and GPA make me wonder if they’d thrive here or be set up to fail.” Treating that commonplace as taboo is irresponsible. The only question is at what point academic credentials matter and to what degree.
With better information, colleges might learn that more expansive race-based preferences would not lower graduation rates; or that a subset of orchestra members or legacies or minorities are harmed by policies intended to help them; or that institutions can eliminate differences in graduation rates among students with GPA disparities by investing in specific types of academic support. Accurate, detailed conclusions could plausibly improve many thousands of lives, whatever they say.
Yet that isn’t the focus of the public debate. Why?
Scalia’s error was to talk carelessly and imprecisely about a predictably fraught subject. Contrary to his lazy characterization, proponents of “mismatch theory” do not believe that admission to selective colleges “does not benefit African Americans,” full stop, or that African Americans would benefit from “a slower track school.”