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No One Tell Justice Thomas: Affirmative Action ‘Mismatch Theory’ Debunked Again

• June 26, 2013 • 10:34 AM

University of California-San Diego Medical Center. (PHOTO: COOLCAESAR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Does affirmative action put kids in over their heads?

Inside Higher Ed‘s Scott Jaschik flags a study with implications for one of the Supreme Court’s blockbuster rulings this week.

The case in question, Fisher v. University of Texas, narrows universities’ ability to use race in admissions decisions. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas cited the so-called “mismatch theory,” a common argument against affirmative action used by both conservative and liberal opponents of the programs.

When compared to students admitted in the first round, but from similar educational backgrounds, the mismatch effect “disappeared.”

The mismatch theory holds that a student admitted to a university by any standard other than grades will get in over his or her head once classes start—”mismatched” with an institution that’s inappropriate to the student’s academic level.

A day after the court’s ruling, sociologists Michael Kurlaender of the University of California-Davis and Eric Grodsky of the University of Wisconsin-Madison released an analysis arguing that mismatch did not exist when students were compared to peers of similar pre-university educational backgrounds.

Kurlaender and Grodsky looked at the then-eight-campus University of California system between 2004 and 2008. The UC system is designed to admit all California students who meet a minimum high school GPA and a standardized test score. But admission to some campuses is more competitive than others. Because of budget cuts during the period studied, the system had been forced to limit class sizes at the most competitive campuses (Berkeley, the University of California-Los Angeles, and the University of California-San Diego). Several thousand were rejected as less-qualified. However, the economic situation improved, and many of the rejected students were accepted after all. In theory, this cohort was “mismatched” to the group that had not been rejected during the budget cuts—the more elite students at the most elite institutions in the system.

When they compared grades and credits accrued by the the regularly accepted group and the secondary acceptance group, they found the “mismatched” students only under-performed first-round admissions students who had attended better secondary schools. When compared to students admitted in the first round, but from similar educational backgrounds, the mismatch effect “disappeared.”

Traditionally admitted students attending elite institutions have expected GPAs that are nearly identical to those of GTO [secondary admission] students. Adding controls for application patterns (the “Application” column) and college major (the “Major” column) does not alter these differences. In sum, GTO students earn GPAs that are substantively and statistically more or less identical on average to those earned by comparable regularly admitted elite students.

The upshot of the research for the Supreme Court decision would seem to be that affirmative action does not get kids in over their heads. Bad high schools might. But that’s a different issue, the study suggests, than the one Thomas cited in his opinion.

Marc Herman
Marc Herman is a writer in Barcelona. He is the author of The Shores of Tripoli.

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