You’ve read a lot about the latest arguments before the Supreme Court on the Fisher case. In this NRO report, Robert Cherry, an economics professor at Brooklyn College, explains Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments and discusses the problems posed for the students who “benefit” by affirmative action.
It’s important to understand that this “mismatch thesis” in no way implies an inability of black students to succeed at top-tier academic institutions, as Scalia’s critics have disingenuously implied. It suggests only that affirmative-action admissions policies disproportionately accept students with lower-than-average test scores and grades. As a result, they are not adequately prepared for the rigors of top-tier universities. This sets these students up for potential failure where they might otherwise have succeeded. Simply put, the mismatch thesis asserts that affirmative action is doing more harm than good for many of the black students admitted as a result of these policies.
Even this author has not quite clarified Scalia’s point, however. Whenever applicants are admitted on the basis of special benefits (whether they are affirmative-action admits, legacy admits, athletic admits, or students whose parents are eager to support the school financially) they may well be below-average students. That fact applies not only to “top-tier” universities but to any schools that use special benefits to admit students. While these students may graduate, their college experience may suffer.
For example, the students who go on to graduate study are usually those relatively few students who have done exceptional work and thus have been noticed by the faculty. The average or below-average student is neglected, even though he or she might have stood out — and been encouraged — in a less “elite” academic environment. Thus, the pipeline to professorships is limited for these students — even though, with the right support and endorsement, they might have done quite well. Often, the greatest harm of affirmative action is not to those who lost out but to those who supposedly benefited.