Mismatched Minorities?

U.S. civil rights panel explores whether affirmative action leaves many black and Latino students more likely to fail in math and science.

September 15, 2008

Addressing the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Friday, a panel of researchers discussed whether minority students are doomed to failure if admitted into highly selective science programs on the basis of racial preferences.

The commission’s briefing centered on the “mismatch” theory, which suggests minority students are less successful in science majors when they are placed in colleges with academic standards that far exceed the students’ preparation.

“Race preferences in admissions … are harming the aspirations of blacks,” said Rogers Elliott, professor emeritus of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College.

The controversial mismatch theory purports to explain, in part, why black and Hispanic students are less likely than whites to complete degrees in the so-called STEM disciplines of science.

Richard Sander, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, drew upon data from the University of Michigan’s graduation rates to illustrate the mismatch theory. He noted that for black students who entered Michigan in 1999, 73 percent who were given “no preference” graduated in four years compared with 70 percent of white students with the same credentials. But for black students who were given “large preference,” just 21 percent graduated in four years, compared with 35 percent of whites who were also given a large preference.

In order to determine the level of preference given to applicants, Sander used an index that included standardized test scores and grade point averages. A 50-point difference on the verbal SAT, for instance, would be considered a moderate preference under Sander’s analysis. A 90-point difference would be considered a large preference. (Michigan officials could not be reached for comment, but in previous debates over affirmative action they have rejected the idea that applicants can be grouped by SAT scores alone to judge their relative ability.)

Sander introduced his mismatch analysis of black law school students in 2004. Since that time, his argument that some minority students might be better served at less prestigious institutions has been met with criticism by affirmative action advocates, who say that race-blind admissions in law schools, for instance, would ultimately undercut minority participation altogether.

California Data Shows Mismatch, Sander Says

The University of California System also served as a model for Sander's research. Citing unpublished data from the system, Sander noted that black and Latino students have far greater success rates in science when they enroll in the California's less selective campuses. Minority students were about half as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees in science at Berkeley or UCLA, for instance, as they were to earn science degrees from five of the of the other six campuses in the system, according to Sander’s study of those entering between 1998 and 2000.

“All those [data] show very compelling evidence that there really is some mismatching going on,” he said.

Michael Yaki, a member of the commission, was the lone commissioner to publicly criticize Sander's analysis at Friday's briefing.

“Part of what we’re talking about is the potentiality of human beings, and that’s not something you can really measure,” said Yaki, a rare Democrat on the Republican-dominated commission.

Richard Tapia, a panelist at the briefing and a math professor at Rice University, expressed concern about steering minorities to less rigorous academic programs – just for the sake of increasing degree production in the sciences. The net result, he argued, will be fewer minorities on faculty at prestigious institutions, which are disinclined to hire professors lacking in academic pedigree.

“Our current path will lead to a permanent underclass,” he said.

Tapia, a Los Angeles native whose parents emigrated from Mexico, renounced the “sink or swim” mentality that some embrace in higher education. Retention and mentoring programs can work for minorities, he argued, if they are given funding and support.

“Treating everyone the same is not good enough,” Tapia said.

K-12 Draws Scrutiny

As would be expected, the briefing inevitably led into discussion of improving college preparation. Thomas Fortmann, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, argued that it’s far too late to discuss achievement gaps by the time students are applying to college. As such, steering minority students toward less selective programs where they are more likely to get science degrees “may result in more STEM majors, but I think it masks the underlying problem,” he said.

The commission also explored industry expectations for science graduates, seeking input from an IBM executive. Robin Willner, vice president of Global Community Initiatives for IBM, touted the need for creative thinkers and leaders in high tech fields. She added that it’s essential that tomorrow’s industry leaders reflect the diversity of the global market in which IBM operates.

In a blunt assessment, Willner said IBM would be headed for big trouble if colleges fail to produce a diverse pool of talent with knowledge of the needs and desires of a growing global consumer base.

“IBM would go into the toilet immediately,” she said, “because we won’t be able to make products for our customers.”


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