A failed policy

Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, by Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. (Basic, 368 pp., $28.99)

The moral arguments against racial preferences in higher education — racial double standards in admissions — have been made once too often. They’re powerful, but we all know them inside out: Affirmative action violates the central principle that all of us should be treated not as members of racial groups, but as individuals, judged by the content of our character. It has long been time to move on, which is precisely what Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. have done in their remarkable new book. They have shifted the focus of the entire debate. Bypassing the standard arguments about core principles, their extensive research focuses on the actual effects of racial preferences on the students they were intended to benefit. Drawing upon data never before available to independent-minded scholars, they find, to their dismay, that such policies actually do more harm than good to black and Hispanic students. From now on, it will be impossible to have a serious debate on this subject without extensive reference to the evidence provided in this volume.

The data are culled from Sander’s research over the past 15 years, and from other recent scholarly investigations. The subtitle conveniently gives us the bottom line: Institutions of higher education admit black and Hispanic students using criteria very different from those applied to white and Asian applicants, and have been killing the former with kindness. These students are thrilled to have been admitted to a highly selective school but quickly discover they cannot cope with the competition from their better-prepared classmates. Thus, they generally do poorly. If their math skills are primitive, they cannot follow a tough economics course. Those who weren’t taught much science in high school are not ready for rigorous pre-med instruction.

These students have plenty of potential for intellectual growth in institutions that are right for them. But a great many of them, alas, are at the wrong schools — “mismatched.” Preferential admissions have enabled them to attend academically rigorous schools for which they are marginally qualified at best. Not only do they fare badly in the classroom at the outset, they fall farther behind with each passing college year. In selective colleges across the land, about half of all black students rank in the bottom fifth of their class. And the gap between them and their white and Asian classmates grows wider over successive years.

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