Education

Book: Racial preferences in university admissions have harmed minority communities

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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The use of racial preferences in university admissions has harmed the minority communities it was supposed to benefit, argue the authors of a new book, “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit it.”

The book’s authors — UCLA Law School Professor Richard Sander and National Journal columnist Stuart Taylor Jr. — make the case against racial preferences, but not on the grounds that they’re unconstitutional. They argue that racial preferences actually harm the beneficiaries by placing them in an academic environment they aren’t prepared for.

“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,” the authors explained in an email to The Daily Caller.

“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.'”

For instance, the consequences of racial preferences on the African-American community have been “quite serious,” the authors argue.

“Today only one in three African-Americans who starts law school succeeds in graduating and passing the bar exam on his or her first attempt,” Sander and Taylor told TheDC.

“That’s quite serious, especially given the amount of debt students take on these days to go to law school. In part because of science mismatch, blacks achieve doctorates in science at one-seventh the rate of whites. Controlling for background and academic preparation, blacks in recent years are 30% more likely than whites to attend a four-year college, but 30% less likely to get a bachelor’s degree. All this does grave damage to the intellectual self-confidence of many struggling students, with potential long-term consequences, and aggravates racial stereotypes.”

Read on the next page TheDC’s full interview with the Sander and Taylor on their book, whether they believe racial preferences are unconstitutional, whether they believe racial diversity is a noble goal in university admissions and much more.

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.

What have been the consequences of what you call “mismatch”?

There are many large-scale problems that result from mismatch. Today only one in three African-Americans who starts law school succeeds in graduating and passing the bar exam on his or her first attempt. That’s quite serious, especially given the amount of debt students take on these days to go to law school. In part because of science mismatch, blacks achieve doctorates in science at one-seventh the rate of whites. Controlling for background and academic preparation, blacks in recent years are 30% more likely than whites to attend a four-year college, but 30% less likely to get a bachelor’s degree. All this does grave damage to the intellectual self-confidence of many struggling students, with potential long-term consequences, and aggravates racial stereotypes. This is a tragedy for racial minorities and for society generally.

Do you have any problem with affirmative action on the grounds that it allows public universities to discriminate on the basis of race? Do you believe affirmative action is unconstitutional, or just unwise given the mismatch effect?

First of all, we object to the term “affirmative action.” The classic forms of affirmative action — reaching out to underrepresented communities to make sure people are aware of opportunities, and making sure that admissions criteria are fair — are definitely not unconstitutional. The real legal issue concerns the use of racial preferences. We are not convinced that it is always unconstitutional to take account of race, although one of us might become convinced of that if the current drift towards perpetuating large preferences persists. But race should certainly be a last resort, and the history of racial preferences in higher education illustrates why. Creating privileges and standards tied to race tends to immediately politicize those privileges, making them untouchable and even exempt from rational discussion while aggravating racial tensions. Historically, the Supreme Court worried less about these political consequences when preferences were conferred on groups with very little political power. But today it’s absurd to suggest that either blacks or Hispanics are politically powerless. Another problem with racial preferences is that they lead us to ignore other types of diversity. Most of the students receiving racial preferences at elite schools are from affluent — even privileged — backgrounds. College leaders can congratulate themselves on having a “diverse” student body while actually having very few students who have experienced real hardship or disadvantage.

Is racial diversity important at colleges? If so, how would you achieve it without affirmative action?

Racial diversity is great, in and of itself. But there are two key problems to keep in mind.

First, racial preference regimes, as they currently operate, do not significantly increase the total pool of minorities going to college; they simply reshuffle those students among different schools. One school’s gain in racial diversity is another school’s loss. So correcting mismatch does not reduce total diversity – it simply affects where this racial diversity will be more apparent.

Second, mismatch affects social interaction, too. When racial minorities are mismatched, their collective academic struggles often lead to self-segregation and social isolation from the rest of the campus. Students tend to form friendships with other students who are similar to themselves in their academic preparation and in the courses they take. Mismatch thus reduces the benefits of diversity.

When California voters passed Prop 209 in 1996, making racial preferences illegal, the level of racial integration across the eight University of California campuses actually increased, and the university began to invest in partnerships with K-12 schools aimed at increasing the number of disadvantaged students (especially blacks and Hispanics) eligible for UC admission. In other words, restricting the “easy” tool of racial preferences made the university invest in the “hard” tool of improving K-12 and addressing the underlying problems that led to racial preferences in the first place.

What is the affirmative action case currently before the Supreme Court? Is it conceivable that the court could rule the use of racial preferences as unconstitutional at public universities?

That’s Fisher v. University of Texas, the first case before the Supreme Court dealing with higher education racial preferences since 2003. We think the Court will almost certainly rule that the University of Texas has violated the Constitution, and will probably try to set more specific, concrete rules governing when universities can use preferences, but it’s unlikely the Court will ban preferences altogether. Justice Kennedy, the key vote in this case, usually moves in smaller steps, and has signaled that he might uphold racial preferences in some circumstances.

What about gender affirmative action. Has that been equally problematic in your opinion? What about socioeconomic affirmative action?

Gender preferences in higher education admissions have never been large, and today are essentially non-existent, except for signs that some schools may be giving small preferences to males. Socioeconomic preferences can, in principle, cause the same difficulties that racial preferences do, but in practice only a handful of universities use them, and we think that small socioeconomic preferences could greatly increase diversity at many colleges without harming the beneficiaries.

But we strongly believe that universities need to practice complete transparency with regard to any preference they use. Applicants, students, and the public should know what factors schools weight in admissions, and we should know how preferences affect outcomes. With transparency, any student who receives a preference can evaluate its costs and benefits, while policymakers and courts can better evaluate how preferences are being used and whether constitutional limits are being violated. Unfortunately, transparency is almost completely lacking now.

How has the reaction been to your book since its release?

Critics of affirmative action generally like it, but are unhappy that we do not call for a complete abolition of racial preferences. Ideologically committed defenders of affirmative action generally don’t want to face the evidence that it sets forth. But open-minded readers, so far as we can tell, consider our book a fair-minded, evidence-based, analytical approach to a subject that has been over-saturated with emotion.

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