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Recently, Justice Scalia made the news with some comments about the Supreme Court’s “Fisher” case. Specifically, he noted:
There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school … a slower-track school where they do well.
Scalia was referring to “mismatch” theory. This is the idea that students, when they attend schools for which they are ill-prepared, actually learn less than they would have learned if they had attended a school more suited to their abilities.
As far as I am aware, Thomas Sowell was the first to propose the theory. In his book, Choosing a College, he advised students not to attend the most prestigious school to which they are admitted but a school for which their SAT scores are near the school’s average.
Over the past few years, Prof. Richard Sander has done the best and most work on the topic. His book Mismatch, coauthored with Stuart Taylor, I believe will prove to be one of the most important books of the decade.
I’ve read much—and, I think, nearly all—of the academic critiques Sander’s mismatch research. I must say, I find these critiques to be some of the worst scholarship I’ve ever read. The authors often adopt slimy and slippery rhetorical devices, and usually they try to deceive readers. Below, I give an example of a such a critique.
Simultaneously, Sander has been the object of vicious personal attacks, usually the attacks try to insinuate that his goal is to keep black people down—to keep them from attending elite colleges and graduate schools.
However, his goal is the opposite. As he shows in his careful and honest research, often affirmative action policies hurt the very people they are supposed to help. If you’re goal is to help black people get ahead, then your hero should be Sander, not “racial justice” advocates.
Below, I list a chapter from my book Cheating: An Insider’s Report on the Use of Race in Admissions at UCLA. It summarizes some of Sander’s major findings on mismatch; it examines in detail a scholar’s slimy attempt to discredit Sander; and it discusses some noteworthy personal details about Sander.
A number of movies chronicle a lone person who is willing to stand up to power or to tell the truth when no one else is willing to. One famous one is Erin Brockovich. Another is Concussion, the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who revealed the frequent head-injury problems of NFL players.
In a just universe someone would make a similar movie about Sander. I believe that it would be at least as important and interesting as Erin Brokovich or Concussion. Does anyone else agree?
One Man Who Told the Truth
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reportedly once said, “One man who stopped lying could bring down a tyranny.”[i]
Although admissions policy at universities is not quite tyranny, it is surrounded by much deceit. In standing up to the deceit, one man has been more important and courageous than all others. His name is Richard Sander.
From the early 1970s, when universities first began granting racial preferences, university leaders touted a strict party line about the preferences: (i) The preferences were small; indeed university leaders frequently claimed that the preferences did no more than break ties. (ii) Every student who received the preferences was fully qualified to succeed at the school. And (iii), the effects of the preferences were overwhelmingly positive.
Although university leaders frequently made such claims, they were extremely reluctant to release data that would allow researchers to investigate the claims.
In 1998, Sander became a member of highly prestigious group assigned to study legal education. He was granted access to a large data set that would allow him to test such claims. As he soon learned, all of the above claims are false.
A Racial Gap at UCLA’s Law School
Born in Washington, DC, Sander spent most of his childhood in small towns in northwest Indiana. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1978 from Harvard, he—like Barack Obama—worked as a community organizer in South Side Chicago.[ii]
In 1983, he began graduate school at Northwestern University, receiving his law degree in 1988 and a PhD in economics in 1990. In 1989, he joined the faculty at UCLA’s school of law.
Upon arriving at UCLA, he soon he noticed—and was very pleased by—the racial diversity of the school. As he wrote in his book, Mismatch:
During my years in graduate school, Chicago and its communities had passed through some dramatic events (some of them memorably recounted in Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father), but the university and my overwhelmingly white classmates seemed largely sealed off from the city. UCLA Law School felt very different. Nearly half of the student body, along with many of the faculty, were non-white; student organizational life was vibrant, and many students spent their precious free time engaged with pro bono organizations in Los Angeles neighborhoods. Classroom discussions reflected the diversity of the students, though not in a particularly self-conscious way. Cross-racial interaction was ubiquitous and cross-racial friendships were common. After the racial tensions of Chicago and the sequestration of Northwestern, UCLA seemed too good to be true. Of course, in a sense, it was. Like a hundred fictional travelers to new worlds that seemed at first to be utopias, I was gradually to discover that the law school had some disturbing hidden secrets.
One discovery was that race was closely linked to law school performance. Almost all classes other than seminars used anonymous grading, but after grades were turned in, professors could get a “matching sheet” that linked exam numbers to names. After my very first semester I was struck that my Hispanic, black, and American Indian students were mostly getting Cs in a class in which the median grade was a B-. The pattern repeated the next semester—including even students who had impressed me in class. Puzzled, I asked a senior colleague about the pattern. Oh yes, she replied, shaking her head. The minority students come in with weaker preparation. It was a tough problem.[iii]
Partly because of his training in economics and statistics, Sander was soon asked to be a technical adviser to the admissions committee. After analyzing the data from the committee, he learned that there indeed was a stark difference between the preparation levels of various racial groups. For instance, the law school had created an index that combined information about an applicant’s LSAT score, his undergraduate grades, and the difficulty of his college. Whites were essentially guaranteed acceptance if they had a score of 820 or higher on the index and guaranteed rejection if they had a score of 760 or lower. For African Americans and American Indians, however, the corresponding numbers were 620 and 550. Thus, for a 140-point range (620 to 760), a student would certainly be admitted if he were black yet certainly be rejected if he were white.
Although the gap in preparation was generally unknown to the students, the gap in classroom performance, as Sander discovered, was well known:
Once, when a student told me about his courseload, I observed that he was in a lot of tough classes graded on mandatory curves. That was true, he responded, but a couple of them were “safeties.” I asked him what that meant. A little embarrassed, he said that was a term for a class that had enough black and Hispanic students to absorb the low grades on the curve. His remark was breathtakingly cynical—and an oversimplification too. (The correlation between race and grades was by no means perfect.) But it was hard to blame him, and I gradually learned that many students thought in those terms.[iv]
Sander began to believe that his discoveries were manifestations of a concept that economist Thomas Sowell has dubbed the “mismatch” effect. According to the effect, if students are less prepared for a particular level of instruction—which occurs almost by design with affirmative action—then, not only do they make worse grades than their peers, they actually learn less than they would have learned if they had attended a less challenging school.
Because of the effect, Sowell offered some surprising advice in his book, Choosing a College. He suggested that students should not necessarily go to the best college to which they are admitted. Rather, they should go to a college at which their SAT scores are near the average of the college.
This series will continue tomorrow on Ricochet.
[ii] Unless I state otherwise, my sources for this chapter are documents (including copies of emails) that Sander has provided me or things he has told me in interviews conducted during late 2013 and early 2014.
[iii] Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students it’s Intended to Help and why Universities won’t Admit it, 2012, Basic Books, pp. 49-50.
[iv] Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students it’s Intended to Help and why Universities won’t Admit it, 2012, Basic Books, p. 51.