Is Affirmative Action Hurting the Students It’s Meant to Help?

A Q&A with the authors of a new book that argues against racial preferences in college admissions as the Supreme Court takes up the debate.

By: Shane Harris

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, taking up the controversial use of racial preferences in college admissions. On the same day, a new book will be published that argues racial preferences are harming minority students, particularly African-Americans.

In Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, co-authors Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. find that minority students are being admitted to colleges and universities for which they’re not academically prepared. As a result, those students, who the authors say would succeed more often at less-competitive schools, are suffering a variety of ill effects, including lower graduation rates and diminished academic self-confidence.

The book, which relies on analysis of admissions data as well as interviews with students and school officials, has earned praise from both sides of the profoundly divisive debate. Columnist Clarence Page wrote, “As a high-profile defender of affirmative action, I used to think the so-called ‘mismatch’ problem was a bit overblown. [The authors] have caused me to think again. How many bright and promising minority students, we must ask, have failed because they were steered—with the best of intentions, of course—into elite schools for which they were less prepared academically than most of their classmates?”

And columnist George Will remarked, “This book will probably make constitutional history. Written at the intersection of social science and law, its data conclusively demonstrate the damage that has been done to intended beneficiaries by courts’ decisions that have made racial preferences in college admissions an exception to the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws.”

Sander, a law school professor, a Taylor, a legal journalist, argue not for a wholesale end to racial preferences, but for significant adjustments to the system they say colleges and universities are using now. We recently sat down with the authors to discuss the book, and how they hope the Supreme Court will decide in Fisher v. Texas.

What is the mismatch in affirmative action and how do you think it’s hurting students?

RS: The mismatch occurs when students are in a learning environment where most of their peers have much stronger academic preparation than they do. The tradeoff is: Do students benefit from having stronger peers, or are they hurt by getting lost in the learning process? We think there’s undoubtedly a range of small preferences where that tradeoff is positive. But in American higher education, where the racial preferences tend to be the equivalent of 200 to 400 SAT points [added to a student’s application], that’s creating a negative mismatch. That’s creating a harmful effect on students.

Because they can’t keep up?

RS: You can’t keep up. The teacher’s not aiming the instruction at you. And if you do badly, you’re likely to academically withdraw. That could mean you just become academically disengaged, or it could mean that you pull out of the tough majors. And this occurs across racial lines.

ST: We’re talking broad averages. The majority of black students at most of the prestigious colleges would not have been admitted without preferences. But there’s a spectrum. Some of them would have gotten admitted. There are others who would have been close. And then you run up the spectrum to students who were given a preference equivalent to 400 SAT points. Somewhere in there you move from kids who are probably going to do fine to kids who are not going to do fine. And a large percentage, the research suggests, are in the not-going-to-do-fine category. But we would never suggest that every recipient of a preference is worse off as a result.

Are any students disproportionately excluded by racial preferences?

ST: Asian students. What happens is across the board of American education, Asians on average perform better than any other racial group, in high school and in college. And since racial preferences tend to drive toward proportional representation of each group, when you say we’ve got to have more blacks or Hispanics, somebody has to go. It’s a zero-sum game.

RS: And those are percentage differences, not absolute differences. But from my point of view, the harm to Asians and whites from affirmative action is the least of our troubles. The converse of mismatch theory is that you’re not hurt that much by going to a 12th-ranked school instead of a 10th-ranked school. You’re probably not hurt at all. The concrete harm that results to the majority from preferences is really not where you ought to be focusing.

You find that the system of racial preferences results in a “cascade effect,” which hurts some students at the top schools, but also at less competitive ones. How does that happen?

RS: Schools like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford get the first bite of the apple when they’re looking at the black and Hispanic applicant population. They’re able to get the very best black and Hispanic [candidates]. But then to fill their racial goals, they reach down into second, third, and fourth tiers of candidates. That means when the second-tier schools are doing admissions, they’re sort of starting with the fifth tier of applicants.

Only about a quarter of all colleges in the country use racial preferences, because only about a quarter of all colleges are really selective. It’s the top 25 percent. It’s a few hundred schools. Those top 25 percent then admit, say, the top 20 to 25 percent of whites and Asians, but also the top 60 to 80 percent of blacks and Hispanics. That means that even when you get to the schools that come after them in the hierarchy, you’re still perpetuating the mismatch effect, because the only minority students who are left are pretty close to the bottom of the academic heap.

ST: It’s no exaggeration to say that at most of the selective universities, there’s basically a two-tier color-coded academic hierarchy because of the mismatch effect. Kids who would have done very well at the 20th-ranked university are doing badly at the 10th-ranked. Kids who might have done very well at the 30th-ranked university are doing badly at the 20th. Imagine how that feeds racial stereotypes among everybody, including in the self-image of the African-American kids.

We think this does much more harm to the kid who was way down who would have done well at a moderately selective college but not at a highly selective college. We think he’s harmed much more than whatever Asian or white kid got bumped to make room for him. The Asian or white kid goes to another pretty good school and does fine.

What is “race norming?” Is it happening at schools, and is it legal?

ST: I think the schools that use racial preferences use race norming de facto, not de jure. Race norming basically means you take the black students’ scores, the white students’ scores, the Asians’, the Hispanics’, and you adjust them depending on race. So if you have a black student who looks just like the white student in the next application file, with SAT scores 200 points lower, maybe you say, “Well, the black student gets a 250-point bump on the SAT.” And if a college is giving that bump to some black applicants, they’re probably giving one to all of them.

Are admissions offices doing that explicitly?

ST: The Supreme Court has said if you do it too explicitly, it’s not good. They don’t write it down, but the admissions data prove they do it. What they’re doing, I think, is illegal under the Supreme Court’s holdings, but it’s almost impossible to prove the aspect of it that’s illegal.

Rick, there was a paper in 2008 that agreed with some of your earlier findings on racial preferences in law schools, namely that black students who were given preferences didn’t do as well academically compared with white students, and that a lower percentage of black students graduated and passed the bar. But the study also found that without affirmative action policies, many black students simply wouldn’t go to law school in the first place. So there’s a broad question here. Which is worse: A system that produces a performance gap between black and white students, or having fewer black students in law school and therefore fewer black lawyers?

RS: The idea of that study is that if you don’t have racial preferences, black interest in law school will be chilled, that the students will say, “Well, if they’re not into me, why should I go?” The only really good empirical test we have of this was the experience in California after Proposition 209 [which prohibits state schools from giving preferential treatment based on race]. And just the opposite happened. Black and Hispanic application rates went up, and yield rates went up really sharply. The chancellors thought there’d be a chilling effect. Instead there was a warming effect.

Why is that?

RS: No one has done a survey of those students. It would be very interesting to find out what they were thinking. But if you look at which students constituted the warming part, it’s really consistent with the hypothesis that they thought preferences would stigmatize them. They thought their credentials would stand up better if they went to a school that didn’t use race.

Why did you both file a friend of the court brief in * Fisher v. Texas? And how do you think the Court should decide?

ST: We filed a neutral brief. We do agree that Fisher ought to win her case. But most of the people who say that want the court to ban racial preferences. That’s not what we want.

RS: We want mainly three things. First is transparency—of the application process and the outcomes. Second is that racial preferences be no stronger than socioeconomic preferences. Third, get rid of race-based scholarships, because they make no sense. If you feel that black or Hispanic applicants need financial help, then clearly an individualized need assessment will accomplish that same goal. The only thing that’s accomplished by race-based scholarships is the bidding wars that break out, frequently for very affluent students. The law school data show that affluent blacks get four times the per capita aid of low-income whites, and even more than low-income blacks.

How likely is it you’ll get what you want in the Supreme Court?

RS: I don’t think we will in this case. The goal of the whole book is to influence the way this issue is thought about and not to influence Fisher.

ST: We don’t even think the Court should adopt everything we say, because the groundwork hasn’t been laid well enough. The whole problem of harm to black students, which is the heart of our argument, was never briefed or argued in the lower courts. That’s not Fisher’s claim. We think the Court can go a certain distance—that appropriate remedies for Fisher would also move in the direction of transparency, for example. But to get all the way in the direction we suggest, it would probably take at least one more case, plus five justices agreeing with us.