News & Politics

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.

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.

Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities
Won’t Admit It
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

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

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.