Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Wrong in Theory, Wrong in Practice


The Chronicle of Higher Education has some badly reasoned “Commentary” today by four sociologists: “Affirmative-Action Programs for Minority Students: Right in Theory, Wrong in Practice.” The gist of it is that racial preferences (euphemistically called “race-sensitive criteria”) in admissions are a wonderful idea, and that the “demoralization and substandard performance” that result from them can be fixed by “wise intervention” on behalf of the preferred students. Said intervention is carefully labeled as “optimistic” rather than “remedial.” 

Before discussing these programs, let me discuss the piece’s premise, which is that “critics [of racial preferences] have leveled three basic charges against it”: 

For one, opponents say the practice constitutes reverse discrimination, lowering the chance of admission for better-qualified white students. They also contend that it creates a mismatch between the skills of minority students and the abilities required for success at selective institutions, setting those students up for academic problems. And they claim that it stigmatizes minority students as less than fully qualified, which results in demoralization and substandard performance, when in fact those students may be well qualified.

The first criticism has not stood up to empirical scrutiny. In fact, studies show that affirmative action generally has had only small and insignificant effects on the admission prospects of white students. The second criticism, or “mismatch hypothesis,” also has not been supported by hard data. For example, in their research for The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (1998), William G. Bowen and Derek Bok found that black students who attended selective institutions were more likely to graduate than their counterparts at less-selective institutions.

The suggestion that racially preferential admissions have not been shown to have significantly discriminatory effects is false; to the contrary, every study — and indeed the rest of this particular Commentary — acknowledges that members of the right groups (blacks, Hispanics) get admitted with significantly lower academic qualifications than those of the wrong groups (whites, Asians). Saying that most of the discriminated-against students would not have gotten into a particular school even had they been fairly treated is a specious argument, no different than justifying Jim Crow by saying that most black students would not have been admitted to, say, the state’s medical school anyhow.

Likewise, to refute the mismatch hypothesis by citing a 1998 book and ignoring the work by, for instance, Richard Sander since then is breathtaking. And there are a lot more than just three criticisms of racial admission preferences; as I wrote in 2003:

The list of costs [of using racial preferences], on the other hand, is long and largely irrefutable: It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school; it encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it mismatches students and institutions, guaranteeing failure for many of the former; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership.

So much for what the Commentary avoids discussing. As for what it does discuss, I have no particular problem with putting a happy face on these intervention programs, but I am skeptical that doing so will solve the problem of less academically competitive students not performing as well as more academically competitive students (note that the Commentary has to admit this underperformance). I would also note that limiting these intervention programs on the basis of race is not only illegal (the Supreme Court made clear in its 2003 University of Michigan decisions that “individualized consideration” of students rather than the mechanical application of racial categories is required by schools), but is more likely to aggravate “stereotype threat” (which underlies the Commentary’s thesis) than allowing students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to participate in them.  

Finally, if the authors of the Commentary agree that it is a bad idea to have these programs open only to those of some races, then perhaps they might even admit that, if we are admitting students with lower academic qualifications on the theory that they are diamonds in the rough, then schools should acknowledge that such diamonds come in all colors — so that race should be ignored not only after but during admissions. After all, the best way to ensure that black and Hispanic students not fear that they have been admitted because of their ethnicity would be for them to know that, in fact, they were not admitted because of their ethnicity.


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