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"Mismatch" theory is very popular with critics of affirmative action. It holds that beneficiaries of affirmative action who are admitted to more competitive colleges may do worse academically (and feel worse about themselves as a result) than if they enrolled at less selective colleges that wouldn't have considered their race or ethnicity. Critics of affirmative action like to cite the theory to show that eliminating the consideration of race from admissions decisions wouldn't just help white or Asian applicants, but would also help black and Latino students.

This week mismatch was cited in the Supreme Court -- even as new research questioned just the kind of analysis that appeared in Justice Clarence Thomas's concurring opinion Monday in the case involving the University of Texas at Austin's admissions policy. (The Supreme Court sent the case back to an appeals court for further review, and also set a high bar that the university must meet to defend its use of race.)

While Justice Thomas backed the conclusion of the majority opinion, he argued that the Supreme Court should have gone further, and barred colleges from considering race at all. And -- among other arguments -- he cited mismatch.

"While it does not, for constitutional purposes, matter whether the university’s racial discrimination is benign, I note that racial engineering does in fact have insidious consequences. There can be no doubt that the university’s discrimination injures white and Asian applicants who are denied admission because of their race. But I believe the injury to those admitted under the university’s discriminatory admissions program is even more harmful," Justice Thomas wrote. He cited, for example, the lower grade-point averages and SAT averages of black and Latino students, compared to white and Asian students. And he said that "tellingly" the university and other backers of affirmative action had failed to offer evidence that racial gaps were closed in college.

Justice Thomas added: "The university admits minorities who otherwise would have attended less selective colleges where they would have been more evenly matched. But, as a result of the mismatching, many blacks and Hispanics who likely would have excelled at less elite schools are placed in a position where under-performance is all but inevitable because they are less academically prepared than the white and Asian students with whom they must compete. Setting aside the damage wreaked upon the self-confidence of these overmatched students, there is no evidence that they learn more at the university than they would have learned at other schools for which they were better prepared. Indeed, they may learn less."

There is a body of research backing this point of view -- and books have charged that universities deny mismatch so that they can continue to defend affirmative action.

But on Tuesday, two researchers released a new study on mismatch that offered a very different take from that of Justice Thomas and other critics of affirmative action. These researchers -- using an unusual study pool of University of California students -- argue that mismatch is real, but that the supposedly mismatched students do quite well (and benefit from being at more competitive institutions). Further they argue that most of those who could be said to be mismatch students aren't black and Latino students, but white and Asian students -- and that the generally positive impacts of being mismatched apply to those of all racial and ethnic groups.

The research -- by Michal Kurlaender of the University of California at Davis and Eric Grodsky of the University of Wisconsin at Madison -- is forthcoming in the journal Sociology of Education.

For their study, they examined a group of mismatch students who were identifiable because of some unusual circumstances facing the University of California in 2004. Facing budget cuts, the university had to turn away several thousand applicants it would have otherwise admitted, and it offered those students automatic transfer admission if they completed general education requirements at a community college. Then the budget situation improved a bit, and the students were admitted to UC after all -- creating a large group of potential "mismatch" students, since they had been judged to be not as worthy of admission as those who got in first.

The study found that these mismatch students did earn slightly lower grades  than did the students who were admitted through the regular process. But the researchers then controlled for educational background. When comparing the mismatch students to those of similar educational backgrounds who were admitted regularly, the differences pretty much disappeared.

Grodsky said that this reflects the reality that even at a place as competitive as the University of California at Berkeley, there is "no one typical student." Rather there are lots of students admitted with different backgrounds. And the supposed mismatch doesn't damage those who entered without the benefit of the best possible high school education -- it means they still end up with a degree from a top college.

The mismatch students "are not bad students" and don't perform poorly, even if there are students who do better. Further, when controlling for education background, the mismatch students are more likely to succeed at the more competitive UC campuses than those who ended up at less competitive campuses.

This means, Grodsky said, that mismatch students are winners. He offered a hypothetical: "If you were told that you could go to Berkeley or Riverside, and you might have a slightly higher G.P.A. at Riverside, but you could graduate from Berkeley, where would you go?" He said for most people, Berkeley would be the obvious choice.

The California study, he said, also points to a problem in the way mismatch is commonly discussed -- which is as a situation that occurs for black and Latino students. Of the mismatch cohort in this study, 30 percent were white and 43 percent were Asian. And that's a reality everywhere, Grodsky said. Most of the students who "just miss" and may somehow get into a college for any number of reasons aren't black and Latino -- there just aren't enough of such students in the pool. Further, Grodsky said that mismatch students showed no difference in academic success that correlated with race or ethnicity. So the white students who manage to get the last slots do as well as the black students.

"Given the benefits that accrue to those who earn degrees from elite institutions, we reject the paternalistic justification for exclusion," the paper says. "Denying opportunities to students on the basis of a mismatch, at least within the rather substantial range of student background attributes we observe, is not clearly in the best interests of excluded students. We are particularly struck by the lack of evidence for differential effects of mismatch across racial/ethnic groups. Given the profound concerns raised by conservative critics of affirmative action for the welfare of mismatched students of color, and only those mismatched students who are students of color, we expected the weight of mismatch to be disproportionately borne by such students....  It is unclear to us why those who advance a color-blind agenda would fail to protect mismatched white and Asian students from the adverse outcomes they erroneously believe mismatched students endure."

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