Sunday, January 6, 2013

Affirmative Action, Does it Really Help?

Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It

This book shatters the notion that affirmative action is helpful even for the students that are the so called beneficiaries. The premise of the book is actually quite simple and nonracial.  The premise of mismatch theory is that people who enter a school with an academic index (some composite of GPA and standardized test scores such as ACT, SAT, MCAT, LSAT) considerably lower than their peers will do worse in school than their peers; whereas people who enter a school with an academic index comparable to the average will do much better.  A second principle of mismatch theory is that how well one does compared to their peers largely predicts how successful their future schooling will be; even graduation rates.  These two theories say that if one has a significantly lower academic index than their peers, then they will be ill-served by attending a more prestigious/elite/challenging university where they will likely struggle academically.

The data the authors use shows that affirmative action hurts those it is intended to help.  A couple important facts about modern affirmative action are laid out early on in the book.  One important point is that modern affirmative action in higher education is primarily about racial preferences.  This means that, in practice, affirmative action is largely just giving preference in admissions to one race over another and not ensuring that everyone receives a fair chance at admission.  The second important fact about affirmative action is that the racial preferences are far more than mere “tie-breakers.” Most schools are very secretive about how much of a preference is given to blacks and hispanics, but it has shown to be substantial.  At the University of Michigan, black applicants were getting a boost relative of a full GPA point (considering a GPA of 2.9 to as a 3.9). That means that a black student with a 3.0 GPA would be considered well ahead of a white or Asian student with a 3.8 if both had the same SAT score.  This leads to huge disparities in the chance of acceptance for different races.  For example, in 1999 if you were black or Hispanic and applied to the University of Michigan with an SAT score in the range of 700-749 you had an 89% chance of acceptance; if you were white or asian with the same score you only had a 7% chance of acceptance (see chart in picture).  The authors claim that the racial preferences used at the University of Michigan were in the standard range of preferences used by such universities.

The rest of the book is dedicated to explaining the data on how these racial preferences hurt the students that receive them.  The University of California school system was forced to stop using racial preferences in 1998 after Proposition 209 was passed in 1996 which barred state schools from discriminating or giving preferences based on race.  The data that developed comparing before and after prop 209 was very interesting: the total number of blacks receiving bachelor’s degrees rose after racial preferences were outlawed. Despite fewer blacks entering the school there was a 55% increase in black students who received degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math.  The only problem was that the school administrators hated prop 209 and were determined to find ways around it, which they did using a ‘holistic’ application process and thus mismatch eventually reentered.

The authors of this book are liberals, true blue bleeding heart liberals.  They even use the pronoun “her” generically instead of “his” sometimes because they are liberals and think that kind of stuff is important.  The authors of this book were not trying to find data to support their worldview, they both previously supported affirmative action but have changed their worldview because of the data. This should give confidence to liberals who might otherwise be prejudiced against the argument if it was made by a conservative, although ‘mismatch’ was a term coined by black conservative Thomas Sowell, who makes the same argument.

The wording of the aforementioned proposition 209 bill was as follows, “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” If equality before the law and the state are not good enough reasons for opposing affirmative action, then hopefully the data in this book will help convince people that affirmative action really is harmful towards the very people it intends to help.  

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