It comes as little surprise that a fierce debate on the use of affirmative action in education has erupted over the past few months. Last October, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case pertaining to the consideration of race in undergraduate admission decisions. While challengers to affirmative action allege that race-conscious admissions amount to “reverse discrimination,” civil rights advocates reiterate the Court’s precedent that campus diversity is in fact a compelling state interest and that a narrowly tailored use of race in admissions is constitutionally permissible.
An emerging school of thought, however, contends that affirmative action, whether legally acceptable or not, harms the very group it aims to help. This proposition, known as the “mismatch effect,” is severely flawed and dangerously misleading.
Richard Sander, the architect of this controversial hypothesis, claims that affirmative action actually undermines the performance of minority students during college and hampers their opportunities in the long run. This occurs, according to Sander, because lesser-qualified minority students are “mismatched” to institutions beyond their capabilities and struggle to keep pace with their white counterparts. Consequently, these minority students drop out or flounder in the labor market.
In his analysis, Sander observes a higher incidence of dropout and a lower rate of bar exam passage among black law students and conjectures that these shortcomings are a direct consequence of institution choice. Sander extrapolates these findings to all beneficiaries of affirmative action – including women, athletes, and legacy applicants. Moreover, Sander suggests that minority students ought to matriculate to lower-tier schools via a race-neutral admissions system in order to increase the overall number of black lawyers.
At first glance, Sander’s narrative may seem plausible. Indeed, Justice Clarence Thomas alluded to this school of thought in his dissenting opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, a landmark Supreme Court case that upheld affirmative action policies as practiced by the University of Michigan Law School. In that dissent, Thomas suggests that institutions with race-conscious admissions “tantalize unprepared students,” and “[t]hese overmatched students take the bait, only to find that they cannot succeed in the cauldron of competition.” Sander’s social science contributions may have seemingly added firepower to Thomas’ claims, but there are serious questions surrounding his methodology and findings.
First, it should be noted that key components of Sander’s methodology never survived the scrutiny of peer review before publication – and it shows. For instance, Professors Chambers, Clydesdale, Lempert, and Kidder identified a major flaw in Sander’s model predicting bar passage: while it could predict with impressive accuracy individuals who passed the bar exam, it performed abysmally low – a pitiful twelve percent – when asked to predict who failed.
In another critique, Daniel Ho points out that all of the law schools in the study used some system of affirmative action, thereby making Sander’s claims about the causality of affirmative action invalid. Sander maintains that white students can act as the control group and black students (assumed to be admitted under a system of affirmative action) as the treatment group, but as Ho explains, this conception “is akin to assigning estrogen to a group of women and a placebo to a group of men, and inferring the effect of estrogen on health outcomes by comparing women and men.”
Serious concerns about Sander’s methodology call into question Sander’s overall conclusions, yet more alarming is the fact that academics cannot duplicate Sander’s results. In fact, more in-depth analyses have actually proven the opposite of Sander’s findings. Alon and Tienda’s study of applicants throughout the 80s and 90s unequivocally repudiates the mismatch hypothesis, finding that graduation rates among minority students increase as the selectivity of the institution attended. Professors Ayres and Brooks led another rigorous study, which tested Sander’s claim that affirmative action decreases the overall number of black lawyers, and refuted any assertion that fewer black law students become lawyers due to affirmative action.
What is most shocking about Sander’s research is that he fails to test his most fundamental premise – that less credentialed minority students would perform better if they ended up at schools deemed a better academic match. Sander’s lack of research here is telling. Scholars have compared similarly credentialed students at schools of varying selectivity, and the results do not align with Sander’s assumptions. These studies find that the students who opt to go to better schools are in fact more likely to graduate and pass the bar. (See Chingos or Ayres and Brooks.)
Other studies have found that when black students enter an institution with the same credentials as their white counterparts, black students are still more likely to underperform. (See Clydesdale or Chambers.) Even black students with the highest academic credentials are twice as likely to fail the bar exam. There is no definitive explanation for this phenomenon, but Sander imprudently assumes that the caliber of the school is the root factor.
Despite major concerns expressed from the academic community regarding Sander’s study, the mismatch hypothesis has unfortunately taken hold in the public sphere – in part due to a Sander’s self-promotion in today’s unquestioning media industry. These claims may prove especially dangerous if they happen to shape the Court’s view on race-conscious admissions. Not only would institutions of higher education and the labor market suffer in terms of diversity. Even worse, the country would legally recognize the blatantly false perspective that African Americans cannot succeed in society. As Professor Beverly Moran points out, Sander’s argument, if true, implies that disparities in higher education are not caused by differences in preparation, economic status, or institutional racism but by inherent differences between racial groups.
Though Sander’s findings remain largely unsubstantiated, his research does spotlight a real, serious problem: black students, on average, receive lower graduation rates and have higher bar failure rates than their peers. The solution to eliminating these gaps in higher education is not to flood lower-tier institutions with students of color. Rather, we must make sure every student’s academic needs are met at every stage of education.