Bench Memos

Fisher v. University of Texas and Sander/Taylor’s Mismatch—Part 2

How is it that the massive racial preferences that the University of Texas and other universities employ in their admissions decisions harm the supposed beneficiaries of those preferences? UCLA law professor Richard Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr. provide a clear and compelling answer in their powerful new book Mismatch (and in their Fisher amicus brief).

Let’s start with the mismatch effect. The simple theory behind the mismatch effect is that a student (of whatever race) who has markedly weaker academic preparation for a class than most of his classmates is not only likely to do poorly in that class. He is also likely to learn less than he would have learned in a classroom full of his academic equals (because professors teach to the middle of the class), and he is likely to suffer from excessive doubts about his capacity and to lose interest in the subject matter of the class.

Sander and Taylor lay out ample evidence substantiating the mismatch effect. For example, research indicates that a student’s chances of obtaining a degree in one of the so-called STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and math) turn much more on his relative credentials—i.e., compared to other students at his college—than on his absolute credentials. The mismatch effect may well explain why blacks who entered elite colleges intending to pursue STEM majors were much less likely to get college degrees in science and to move on to doctoral programs in science than academically weaker blacks who attended historically black colleges.

Sander’s own research on law school mismatch is particularly striking. That research indicates that the reason for the poor performance of black law school graduates on bar exams is that the “law schools were killing them with kindness by extending admissions preferences … that systematically catapulted blacks into schools where they were very likely not only to get bad grades but also actually have trouble learning” (60-61). In other words, a law student’s chances of passing the bar exam, and of actually pursuing a career in the law, would be higher if he attended a law school for which he was academically well qualified rather than a more elite school that admitted him on the basis of a large preference.

Note that the mismatch effect itself has nothing to do with race. It would presumably apply to preferences for legacy or athletic candidates if those preferences were of the same magnitude as racial preferences.

Large racial preferences in undergraduate and graduate admissions programs, Sander and Taylor argue, “systematically put minority students in academic environments where they feel overwhelmed” (p. 4) and “end up having high academic attrition or failure, thereby earning fewer degrees, obtaining fewer professional licenses, giving up on aspirations, and emerging from higher education with a deep-seated”—but mistaken—“sense that they didn’t have what it takes to succeed” (pp. 5-6). In fact, “nearly all of these students do have what it takes to succeed”: “If they were at good but less-selective schools, their chances of achieving long-term success in school and in life would be higher” (p. 6 (emphasis omitted)).

Beyond the most elite colleges, the cascade effect dramatically increases the academic disparity between those admittees who receive racial preferences and those who don’t. As Sander and Taylor explain it, the cascade effect derives from the fact that black college applicants as a whole are severely underrepresented at the top levels of the academic index rank and severely overrepresented at the bottom. What this means is that as the most elite colleges enroll blacks from the several highest cohorts, the next ranks of selective colleges need to go far lower on the academic index to recruit black students. By Sander and Taylor’s numbers, the gap in the median academic index between non-black and black students is nine percentile points for the most elite schools, but then quickly cascades to huge gaps of 27, 39, 44, and 47 percentile points for the next tiers of selective colleges. (See pp. 21-24.)

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