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Thoughts on Admissions Preferences (3/5)

Third of a five-part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Mismatch.jpgThe strongest arguments against quota-based admissions policies are put forward in a recent book entitled Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, by UCLA Law Professor Richard Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr.

The book recalls positions summarized by columnist Charles Krauthammer in a 1998 article in Time Magazine entitled Lies, Damn Lies And Racial Statistics, in which he noted that after affirmative action programs were forbidden in California in 1996 by Proposition 209, the number of students of color dropped sharply in the UC system’s top schools, but the number of such students studying in the entire UC system was stable. Krauthammer’s explanation mirrored the conclusions in Mismatch: by ending affirmative action programs, the UC institutions no longer offered minority group students a leg up in the admissions process, and therefore it ceased placing these students in educational environments where they were over-matched. Instead, the race-neutral admissions system began to place them in universities that corresponded to their relative secondary school preparation. As a result, for the first time most students were able to succeed and even excel in environments academically appropriate to their academic preparation.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Sander and Taylor updated the data cited by Krauthammer:

Yet race-neutrality has produced stunning benefits for minorities in the UC system as a whole, as shown in a data set that economists obtained from UC administrators. Black, American-Indian and Hispanic students made up 26% of all U.C. freshmen in 2010, up from 16% in 1997; the number of B.A.s earned by black and Hispanic students in four years rose 55% between 1995-97 and 2001-03, while the number with GPAs above 3.5 rose 63%.

In the same article, the authors note that a mismatch of preparation negatively impacts students with skills well below the median level among students in their institution:

There is now increasing evidence that students who receive large preferences of any kind — whether based on race, athletic ability, alumni connections or other considerations — experience some clear negative effects: Students end up with poor grades (usually in the bottom fifth of their class), lower graduation rates, extremely high attrition rates from science and engineering majors, substantial self-segregation on campus, lower self-esteem and far greater difficulty passing licensing tests (such as bar exams for lawyers).

The most encouraging part of this research is the parallel finding that these same students have dramatically better outcomes if they go to schools where their level of academic preparation is much closer to that of the median student. That is, black and Hispanic students—as well as the smaller numbers of preferentially admitted athletes and children of donors—excel when they avoid the problem of what has come to be called “mismatch.”

Throughout their carefully written book, Sander and Taylor observe that while their emphasis may be on African-Americans, this choice is only due to the fact that this group receives the largest measure of preferences in admissions, and therefore their deficit in preparedness compared to other students is the greatest in higher education. The authors take pains to note that any group of students facing an environment for which they are not prepared will suffer from mismatch — in fact, they cite a study at Duke showing that a great many legacies who were given large admissions advantages — like many minority students — fail to achieve their educational goals.

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