Book: Racial preferences in university admissions have harmed minority communities

Why did you both decide to write the book?

Most of the debate about racial preferences in higher education focuses on whether they are fair or unfair. But over the past fifteen years a lot of scholarly research has found that large preferences just don’t work very well either for the supposed beneficiaries or for a healthy diversity. We concluded that a book would help to inject this research, and these ideas, into the public debate.

How does affirmative action hurt students, as your subtitle says, and why won’t universities admit it?

When a given student — let’s call her “Susan” — receives a large admissions preference into an elite university, Susan is likely to be confronted with pretty intense competition. Most of the other students have much stronger academic preparation than Susan, and the professors are teaching towards the middle of the class, rather than the students like Susan who need to catch up. As a result, Susan is likely to struggle in the class, get a low grade, and actually learn less than she would have if she had attended a somewhat less elite school. That’s why we say that students receiving large preferences are often “mismatched.” It’s particularly easy to see the mismatch effect in the sciences and engineering. If Susan enters college hoping to become a chemist, she’s almost twice as likely to achieve this goal if she goes to a school where she is not mismatched.

As for why universities won’t admit this problem, that’s more complicated. There have now been two reports issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, both highlighting mismatch as a serious problem that higher education needs to address. But we’re not aware of a single acknowledgement by a university leader that these reports even exist, much less any plan to investigate and discuss solutions! Universities are paralyzed partly because anything having to do with race on college campuses is highly political, and partly because acknowledging any aspect of this problem — such as the poor performance of many students receiving large preferences — immediately raises other awkward questions, such as why the university is giving so much weight to race in admissions. Administrators’ fears of being called racist or insensitive, of making minority students feel they are being disrespected, and of angry racial protests and the media coverage they attract also make candor about the problems with racial preferences taboo.