Bench Memos

Fisher v. University of Texas and Sander/Taylor’s Mismatch—Part 3

See Part 1 and Part 2

Among the many matters that UCLA law professor Richard Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr. address in their new book Mismatch is California’s Proposition 209, the ban on racial preferences that the state’s voters adopted in 1996. Sander and Taylor provide a remarkable account: Prop 209 had some unexpected and astonishingly favorable results, but, rather than celebrating and building on these results, university administrators hid them and “engineered secret policies to violate” Prop 209.

By Sander and Taylor’s account, supporters of racial preferences in admissions feared that the race-blind admissions required by Prop 209 would “dramatically reduce minority enrollments” in the University of California system: A chilling effect caused by the perception that the UC system was hostile to minorities would lead to fewer minority applicants, and that chilling effect would also make those black and Hispanic applicants who were admitted (Sander and Taylor use admitted to mean offered admission) much more likely to decline the offer in favor of more hospitable environments.

The results in the immediate aftermath of Prop 209 were startlingly different from what supporters of racial preferences expected. For starters, applications from blacks and Hispanics increased, both at the elite UC campuses (Berkeley and UCLA) and at the other six campuses (with a single exception for black applicants at one campus). As Sander and Taylor note, the increase in black and Hispanic applications to Berkeley and UCLA was especially intriguing: because race-blind admissions reduced by about half the prospect that a black or Hispanic applicant would be admitted, it would have been reasonable to expect a significant decline in applications to these schools. Sander and Taylor speculate that, rather than having a chilling effect on applications, Prop 209 had a warming effect: “the most plausible inference from [the increase in applications to the UC system from black and Hispanic students] is that the prospect of attending schools that admitted them without regard to their race attracted and even excited them” (p. 134).

Another astonishing result that would appear to confirm the warming-effect hypothesis: the rate at which black students accepted offers of admission (the so-called yield rate)at Berkeley soared to nearly 52%, the highest in many years. “More modest but substantial improvements in yield occurred for blacks at other campuses and for Hispanics as well.” (P. 134.)

By minimizing the mismatch effect, Prop 209 also had an extraordinary impact on academic results:

Black and Hispanic students improved their academic performance, stuck more successfully to STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] majors, and graduated at stunningly improved rates. Indeed, the overall improvements were so large that graduation improvements tended to swamp declines in enrollment. [P. 143.]

As Sander and Taylor document, UC academics and administrators responded to all this good news by ignoring it and, worse, by covertly reinstating (via “holistic” admissions) the racial preferences that Prop 209 barred. They thus restored and aggravated the pre-Prop 209 mismatch problem that had such a devastating effect on blacks and Hispanics.

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