The question, however, is how best to achieve this? Many people, especially liberals, assume that this must entail what has been called “affirmative action.” They want to make sure that minorities are not excluded from higher education and therefore they support balanced admission “objectives.”
According to the advocates of this policy, colleges should set admission targets for African-Americans — but not quotas. In practice, of course, these come down to exactly the same thing. They also say that race should serve only as a tiebreaker when candidates’ credentials are fairly close.
In fact, affirmative action has been used to admit minorities to elite colleges for which their academic preparation is wholly inadequate. The effects of this strategy have recently been chronicled by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor in their book, “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It” (Basic Books, 2012).
As this work’s title suggests, the lead author’s research demonstrates that students who are admitted to colleges for which they are unprepared suffer serious injury. Many do not graduate, or if they do, they do so poorly that they have difficulty entering the job market.
Good intentions do not always produce good results. For a long time critics have been asking how it benefits a student to be admitted to a school, but then flunk out. Now the data is in and it confirms the worst fears of the doubters. The supposed beneficiaries of affirmative action do less well than their peers who do not receive this presumed assistance.
Sander, a law professor at UCLA, has spent over a decade studying the admissions policies of law schools. He finds, and this has been confirmed by other researchers, that students with low grades and test scores cannot keep up with the demands of the more rigorous schools. He also finds they become discouraged and drop out. Or if they graduate, they cannot pass the bar exam and therefore do not become lawyers. Meanwhile, students who are better matched with lower ranking schools get better grades and do pass the bar.
The point is that what matters is how well a student’s academic grounding fits the standards of a particular school. The better the fit, the better the outcome. Efforts to vault people into programs they cannot handle does them no good. It only leads to frustration and bitterness.
One of the worst aspects of this discovery is how it has been dealt with by academics. For the most part, they are in denial. So committed are they to affirmative action that they refuse to alter their programs.
Thus, when California, by law, forbade its university system from using race to determine college admission, the professors and administrators were up in arms. They predicted complete disaster, with African-American students totally excluded from top-tier schools.
Indeed, the number of blacks admitted to Berkeley fell substantially. But the surprise was that the number who graduated increased. Since only well-prepared students were accepted, these could, and did, keep up.
So what was the lesson that the academics learned? Well, they didn’t learn. They were so determined to keep affirmative action in place that they changed their admission policies. Instead of relying on grades and test scores, their practices became more “holistic” and hence subjective.
In other words, the university officials cheated. They stacked the deck to bring back minorities in the desired numbers. As an academic, I was mortified that scholars who supposedly believe in empirical facts rejected these in favor of touchy-feely moral sentiments.
So where does this leave us? Will our colleges institute reforms that actually make things better, or stay in the same anti-intellectual rut?
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.