Monday, December 14, 2015

Does Affirmative Action for College Admissions Cause a Mismatch Effect?

Last week, the Supreme Court allowed Abigail Fisher to reargue her case in Fisher v. University of Texas. To recap the case, plaintiff Abigail Fisher was denied entry to the University of Texas. She filed suit by saying that the University discriminated against her on the basis of race, and thus violated the Constitution. The case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court in 2012. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Circuit Court failed to apply strict scrutiny, which sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit Court. The case worked its way up to the Supreme Court once more, and here we are. During the oral arguments for the case this past week, Justice Antonin Scalia made the controversial statement that "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 have them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well." Top Democrats didn't waste much time in calling Scalia a racist. Whatever his intentions were, Scalia has reignited the affirmative action debate in this country once more, specifically in context with the mismatch effect.

The theory behind the mismatch effect in a nutshell: a school offers a considerably large preference to a student due to race in the hopes that the minority student will succeed with the presented opportunity to attend a more elite university. The mismatch takes place because the accepted student is not prepared for the academic rigor of a more select university, and goes through unnecessary, preventable inconvenience and suffering (e.g., poor grades, changing majors, dropping out, transferring to another college) that would have most probably not have taken place had the student attended an institution of higher learning that better reflected the student's academic abilities. This theory can also be applied to "legacy students" and students on athletic scholarships, but in this context, it is applied to students of certain races since students of those races are provided with the preferential treatment.

This has always been a contentious theory. Given the recent events in Baltimore and Ferguson, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and increased racial tensions in this country, such a theory is all the more heated. Interracial relations notwithstanding, it's understandable why this would be a hot-button issue. If the mismatch theory is indeed a reality, it undermines the primary argument for affirmative action in college admissions, which is that affirmative action helps disadvantaged minority groups. Politically speaking, there is a lot riding on this theory, which is why we should have cooler heads prevail in asking the question of whether the mismatch effect is mere theory or reality.

The main proponent of the mismatch effect, UCLA Professor Richard Sander, has been arguing at least since 2004 that affirmative action policies for college admissions have indeed caused this mismatch effect, most notably in his book Mismatch. Unsurprisingly, this has caused much criticism, to which Sander has replied. It wasn't just the initial criticism shortly after the release of Sander's paper. Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute argued last Thursday that the mismatch theory doesn't withstand scrutiny, although he made that argument back in 2013 and 2009. A couple of economists found that in the field of law, removing racial preferences would actually reduce the number of African-Americans that pursue law degrees at all (Rothstein and Yoon, 2008). Other economists have followed suit in criticizing the mismatch theory (e.g., Kidder and Lempert, 2014Kurlaender and Grodsky, 2013Dale and Kruger, 2011Ho, 2007).

It should also be no surprise that there are other economists aside from Sander who find evidence in favor of the mismatch theory, which is particularly true for those who pursue STEM degrees (Arcidiacono et al., 2013) and law students (Williams, 2013). Along with two other colleagues, an MIT economist found that students learn more than they do in academically heterogeneous classes (Duflo et al., 2010). Back in August, the Heritage Foundation flushed out the details of empirical evidence in a policy report that shows a mismatch effect.

The contention between affirmative action scholars and empiricists does not seem to between the outcome per se (see Brief of Empirical Scholars from 2012 case; also read Sander's 2012 amicus brief), but rather that affirmative action is a causative agent. Let's set aside for a moment that one issues here is that we could use better data in measuring the mismatch effect (Arcidiacono and Lovenheim, 2015, p. 28).

I don't like categorizing individuals into such broad racial categories. However, since society is so gung-ho to do so, let's go through some statistics. Since 1976, we have seen the percent of students enrolled for college increasingly shift to have more African-Americans and Hispanic Americans. Based on Department of Education data, African-Americans went from representing 9.6 percent of enrollees in 1976 to 14.9 percent in 2012, which is pretty good considering that African-Americans represent 13.2 percent of the population. Even in spite of an enrollment rate that is slightly higher than demographic representation in the general American population, African-Americans have a lower completion rate than Caucasian Americans by approximately 20 percent. For those select minority demographics that still make it, there is still a racial GPA gap (Arcidiacono et al., 2012).

I just outlined some unfortunate realities that point to racial gaps, particularly in terms of GPA and completion rates. Although opponents of mismatch theory like to criticize the theory, one thing I couldn't find was an alternative theory that would be more plausible. While it might be true that some minority students thrive by being around students with better academic preparedness, the aggregate data show that it's not the case for African-American students attending a four-year college. If African-American and Hispanic students are statistically more likely to receive a less-than-stellar K-12 education, it is certainly within the realm of plausibility, not to mention probability, that they would have greater difficulties handling a strenuous academic workload since the quality of K-12 education received to help them prepare for post-secondary education is in, many cases, inadequate.

There is a certain disquietude to the fact that diversity based on skin color has garnered such emphasis in college admissions, which is something I brought up when reflecting on the initial Fisher v. University of Texas case back in 2012. Balkanization and separation of people based on the color of their skin in an increasingly multicultural and ethnically diverse country only divides this country further. While the economists fight out the particulars of the data and evidence, I have to wonder about alternatives that can be pursued to mitigate certain related issues.

A few alternatives can be to improve recruitment efforts for talented lower-income students, create summer programming for these students to catch up academically, create additional tutoring opportunities for these students, decrease legacy admissions or student athletic scholarships so that these lower-income students can be admitted, or create some transparency on student data so one can compare how they match up to others' credentials. However, these alternatives are stopgaps because they don't go deep enough into the issue. If the issue is indeed lack of preparedness, then the focus should be on K-12 education so these students can handle college. Or better yet, we can make K-12 education comprehensive and informative where they can develop enough to the point where they don't need to go to college, a pursuit that can hardly be considered to have a 100 percent success rate. While I am curious as to see what education reforms are passed to help minority students, and indeed all disadvantaged students, a policy that agitates racial relations and has questionable outcomes is not something I would continue to do with an attitude of "business as usual."

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