By Richard Sander
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia ignited a firestorm last week at oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, a case concerning that school’s affirmative-action policies. The media pounced after Justice Scalia suggested that it might be not be a bad thing if fewer African-Americans were admitted to the University of Texas. Many rushed to call the comments racist.
Subsequent reports clarified that Mr. Scalia had been invoking the “mismatch” hypothesis, which posits that students who receive large admissions preferences—and who therefore attend a school that they wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise—often end up hurt by the academic gap between them and their college peers. But on the whole even this coverage has spread confusion.
The mismatch theory is not about race. It is about admissions preferences, full stop. Mismatch can affect students who receive preferential admission based on athletic prowess, low socioeconomic status, or alumni parents. An important finding of mismatch research is that when one controls for the effect of admissions preferences, racial differences in college performance largely disappear. Far from stigmatizing minorities, mismatch places the responsibility for otherwise hard-to-explain racial gaps not on the students, but on the administrators who put them in classrooms above their qualifications.
The size of the preferential treatment is all-important. Mismatch problems almost always result from very large preferences—ones that give applicants the equivalent of, say, a 200-point SAT boost. Some studies that claim to provide evidence against mismatch turn out to involve small preferences, perhaps the equivalent of a 50-point SAT boost....
After sidestepping the noise, there is a surprising level of consensus in the literature. There are now five unrebutted peer-reviewed studies—for instance, one by Frederick Smyth and John McArdle, published in 2004 by Research in Higher Education—concluding that aspiring scientists who receive large admissions preferences drop off the STEM track at up to twice the usual rate. A study by three labor economists, to be published next year in the American Economic Review, finds that large preferences substantially depressed the rate at which minorities achieved science degrees at the University of California before racial preferences were banned in 1996.
Law schools are another case: I estimate that only one in three African-Americans entering law school graduates and passes the bar on the first try, compared with two in three whites. All four of the peer-reviewed articles on the subject—such as Doug Williams’s 2013 study in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies—find strong evidence that mismatch helps explain this gap. None of the critics of law-school mismatch have managed to publish their rebuttals in a peer-reviewed journal, and their claims have not stood up well to scrutiny....
At the University of Texas, the gaps in academic preparation are wide: Among freshman admitted outside the state’s top 10% system in 2009, the mean SAT score for whites was 390 points higher than for blacks. That indicates a large preference indeed. Mismatch very likely occurs at Texas, but not enough data has been made public to study the matter properly.
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