The Agenda

Do Racial Preferences Matter?

A number of smart bloggers — Matt Yglesias and Megan McArdle among them — have been arguing that the debate over the use of preferences in admissions to elite schools is not very important. I’ve been very sympathetic to this argument, and it definitely has considerable force: we’d be far better off if we invested more attention in improving the quality and efficiency of K-12 education and non-traditional post-secondary options. Matt writes:

People who are plausible admission candidates at Harvard and don’t quite make the cut end up at Columbia or Penn. People who don’t get into Berkeley go to UCLA. And they all end up fine. There’s just absolutely no need to cry for someone who got into Bryn Mawr instead of Wellesley thanks to affirmative action or legacy preference or structural bias in the SAT or anything else. This is a made-up social problem. Every single American teenager who winds up at a selective college of any kind is in very good shape in a country where (a) most people don’t have college degrees and (b) most colleges aren’t selective.

Again, I’m sympathetic — but let’s leave the students who just miss the cut aside. There is another class of students who are arguably harmed by preferences, namely a large proportion of the supposed beneficiaries.

When Richard H. Sander of UCLA Law School first wrote about “mismatch,” he was ferociously attacked. A number of studies were published that claimed to refute Sander’s article. And as Sander continues to research the mismatch hypothesis, he was forced to file lawsuits to gain access to admissions data and data on student performance and post-graduation outcomes. Sander and his collaborators have continued to work on the mismatch question, and they’ve made a number of striking findings that will be made public over the next few months.

For now, though, check out this 2007 Los Angeles Times op-ed by law professors Sander and Vikram Amar. 


The mismatch theory is controversial. One of us (Sander) has advanced it in the academic literature. The other (Amar) believes that while it raises substantial questions, it has not been empirically proved. Some dismiss the whole idea as nothing more than a politically motivated attack on affirmative action or, even worse, an attack on blacks and Latinos — the main recipients of current preferences. Many rightly point out that definitive conclusions are difficult because the data available to researchers thus far have been limited in very important ways.

Still, certain facts are indisputable. Data from one selective California law school from 2005 show that students who received large preferences were 10 times as likely to fail the California bar as students who received no preference. After the passage of Proposition 209, which limited the use of racial preferences at California’s public universities, in-state bar passage rates for blacks and Latinos went up relative to out-of-state bar passage rates. To the extent that students of color moved from UC schools to less elite ones (as seems likely), the post-209 experience is consistent with the mismatch theory.

In general, research shows that 50% of black law students end up in the bottom 10th of their class, and that they are more than twice as likely to drop out as white students. Only one in three black students who start law school graduate and pass the bar on their first attempt; most never become lawyers. How much of this might be attributable to the mismatch effect of affirmative action is still a matter of debate, but the problem cries out for attention.

A lot of legal scholars who focus on empirical work agree that the mismatch effect deserves serious study. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a 280-page report on these issues that came to the same conclusion.

The authors go on to explain the barriers to gaining the kind of information Sander and his team needed to move the ball forward.

So why should we care? If the mismatch hypothesis is correct, a large number of talented students are, to use Matt’s example, attending Berkeley when they’d be better suited to attending UCLA. At UCLA, the student in question might flourish in the middle or the top of the pack. At Berkeley, in contrast, the same student would likely wind up in the bottom early on, and as a result might get so discouraged as to drop out. 

This isn’t a world-historical tragedy. I should emphasize that this is nowhere near as important as, say, the quality of K-12 education, and the point McArdle and Yglesias make is well taken. Mismatch does, however, cut against the ostensible goals of racial preferences, including the (in my view) important goal of making the professional class more racially diverse. And it palpably damages the lives of a small but not trivial group of young people — not the kids displaced by preferences, but the kids schools intend to help.

Again, the final word isn’t out on mismatch. I’ll keep you posted as the Sander team publishes its results. 


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