Mismatch and Transparency

by Reihan Salam

Dan Slater’s recent article on racial preferences references the mismatch hypothesis, and it includes a number of revealing passages:

Recently, economists from Duke studied the effects of Prop 209, comparing undergraduate graduation rates for blacks, Hispanics and American Indians before and after the ban. In a paper being considered for publication by The Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Duke economists conclude that mismatch effects are strongest for students in so-called STEM majors — science, technology, engineering and math. These subjects proceed in a more regimented way than the humanities, with each topic and class building on what came before. If you don’t properly learn one concept, it’s easier to get knocked off track.

The Duke economists say that lower-ranked schools in the University of California system are better at graduating minority students in STEM majors. For example, they conclude that had the bottom third of minority students at Berkeley who hoped to graduate with a STEM major gone to Santa Cruz instead, they would have been almost twice as likely to earn such a degree.

“Prior to California’s ban on affirmative action,” Peter Arcidiacono, one of the study’s authors, told me, “what Berkeley did well was switch relatively ill-prepared minority students out of the sciences and into majors where credentials are relatively less important.” [Emphasis added]

To be clear, what Berkeley “did well” was switch students who had hoped to flourish in STEM majors, and who may well have done so had the attended other schools in the University of California system, into majors that are less academically demanding, and which tend to lead to less remunerative employment. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, particularly if it leads to higher graduation rates. Yet the problem is that students admitted with large preferences are generally not told about the potential consequences. 

Later on, another scholar cites the alleged virtues of mismatch:

“The real question is what we want affirmative action to achieve,” says Richard Brooks, a law professor at Yale. “Are we trying to maximize diversity? Engagement in the classroom? Whatever it is, I don’t think the purpose of affirmative action is for everyone to have average grades.” Mr. Brooks believes that mismatch exists. But he rejects the idea that it’s as insidious as others claim and says that some mismatch might even be a good thing. Striving alongside people more capable than we are is a key ingredient for growth of all kinds.

It may well be true that “striving” of this kind is an ingredient for growth, yet note that Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr., the authors of Mismatch, have called for transparency. That is, students admitted to a selective program with the benefit of large preferences ought to be given information on how likely they are to graduate or to pass the bar exam, etc., relative to their peers who were admitted without large preferences. Students can then decide if the value of striving outweighs the downside risk.