Author Archive | Prof. Rick Sander, guest-blogging

Rational Discourse and Affirmative Action

On Friday I discussed a body of research – all of it uncontroverted – that documents a serious flaw in affirmative action programs pursued by elite colleges. Students who receive large preferences and arrive on campus hoping to major in STEM fields (e.g., Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) tend to migrate out of those fields at very high rates, or, if they remain in those fields, often either fail to graduate or graduate with very low GPAs. There is thus a strong tension between receiving a large admissions preference to a more elite school, and one’s ability to pursue a STEM career.

Is it possible for contemporary American universities to engage constructively with this type of research? Recent events at Duke University suggest not.

The Duke study I described in Friday’s post (by economists Peter Arcidiacono and Esteban Aucejo, and by sociologist Ken Spenner, all of Duke) was motivated by an important question: do students who receive large admissions preferences “catch up” with their peers over their college years? This ties into an important premise of many preference programs – i.e., that the rich resources of an elite university will help to phase out prior preparation gaps between students of different races. Aggregate data at Duke suggested that the GPA gap across racial groups was, indeed, narrowing as college progressed, from over half-a-point black/white GPA gap in the first semester, to less than three-tenths of a point by the eighth semester.

Using data gathered by the university, Arcidiacono et al found that this narrowing was illusory. Courses taken by juniors and seniors were graded very leniently, and, more importantly, students who had bad grades in their freshmen year migrated in large numbers from STEM fields and economics to other majors, which generally had easier grading. When one adjusted for these [...]

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The Problem of “Science Mismatch”

Some of the most significant recent work on affirmative action concerns a phenomenon called “science mismatch”. The idea behind science mismatch is very intuitive: if you are a high school senior interested in becoming, for example, a chemist, you may seriously harm your chances of success by attending a school where most of the other would-be chemists have stronger academic preparation than you do. Professors will tend to pitch their class at the median student, not you; and if you struggle or fall behind in the first semester of inorganic chemistry, you will be in even worse shape in the second semester, and in very serious trouble when you hit organic chemistry. You are likely to get bad grades and to either transfer out of chemistry or fail to graduate altogether.

This idea was  first advanced by Dartmouth psychologist Rogers Elliott (and coauthors) in 1996, and using data from several Ivy League schools, he demonstrated that, indeed, attrition rates from the sciences were highly associated with comparatively lower academic preparation, which in turn was highly associated with receiving an admissions preference. His data suggested that a given student was far more likely to achieve a science degree if she attended a school where her pre-college credentials were close to the median science student.

Virginia psychologists Frederick Smyth and John McArdle provided an even stronger demonstration of these points in a 2004 article. Making use of the same data Bowen & Bok used in Shape of the River, they were able to compare similar students who were interested in “STEM” fields (an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math), and who attended schools with either similar peers, somewhat more prepared peers, or much more prepared peers. Smyth and McArdle found strong evidence of science mismatch. Among their key conclusions: had [...]

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Whatever Happened to the Mismatch Effect?

As some readers will recall, a little more than seven years ago I published an analysis of law school affirmative action in the Stanford Law Review. The article was the first to present detailed data on the operation and effects of racial preferences in law schools (focusing on blacks).

I also laid out evidence suggesting that large preferences seemed to be worsening black outcomes. I argued that this was plausibly due to a “mismatch effect”; students receiving large preferences (for whatever reason) were likely to find themselves in academic environments where they had to struggle just to keep up; professor instruction would typically be aimed at the “median” student, so students with weaker academic preparation would tend to fall behind, and, even if they did not become discouraged and give up, would tend to learn less than they would have learned in an environment where their level of academic preparation was closer to the class median.

I suggested that the “mismatch effect” could explain as much as half of the black-white gap in first-time bar passage rates (the full gap is thirty to forty percentage points). I also suggested that “mismatch” might so worsen black outcomes that, on net, contemporary affirmative action was not adding to the total number of black lawyers, and might even be lowering the total number of new, licensed black attorneys.

The article generated intense interest, debate, and criticism, though even most critics conceded that I had gotten the facts right. Several well-known empirical scholars in law schools published essays that purported to disprove the mismatch hypothesis. For awhile, many defenders of affirmative action seemed to assume that the article would inevitably provoke a crisis in legal academia, and while attempting to seize the moral high ground in the debate, they attracted even more publicity to [...]

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