Admissions edge cuts chances

Going to the toughest college you can get into isn’t necessarily the best strategy, writes Gail Heriot, a University of San Diego law professor and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. According to a report by the commission, “accepting an affirmative action leg-up probably hurts a student’s chances of becoming a doctor, scientist or engineer.” Students are more likely to achieve their goals if they attend a school at which their academic credentials are roughly average.

College-bound African-Americans are just as likely as whites to plan science and engineering majors, but much more likely to switch to easier majors along the way, Heriot writes. While black students earn lower science-related standardized test scores than Asians or whites, that’s not the whole explanation.

As three independent scholarly studies show, part of the problem appears to be relative. A student who attends a college at which his entering credentials put him near the bottom of the class — which is where a student who needed an affirmative action preference will be — is less likely to persevere in science or engineering than an otherwise identical student attending a school at which those same credentials put him in the middle of the class or higher.

. . . A good student can get in over his head and end up learning little or nothing if he is placed in a classroom with students whose level of academic preparation is much higher than his own, even though he is fully capable of mastering the material when presented at a more moderate pace. Discouraged, he may even give up — even though he would have persevered and ultimately succeeded in a somewhat less competitive environment.

Frederick Smyth, a University of Virginia psychology professor,  and John McArdle, a University of Southern California psychology professor, estimate that 45 percent more minority women and 35 percent more minority men would have persisted in science and engineering if they had attended schools where their academic credentials matched their peers.

With only 20 percent of total African-American enrollment, historically black colleges and universities produce 40 percent of the African-Americans graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences, Heriot writes.

About Joanne


  1. Combining this with the “successes” from minorities earning Ivy degrees, I would think that a college counselor might think: if the major is a social science, a minority non-genius can accept several affirmative action bumps, but if the major is in science or engineering, only one affirmative action bump should be taken and it should be reserved for the last step (grad school).

    I wouldn’t want to be the counselor telling a smart minority student to turn down Stanford and attend Pepperdine! Remember the mantras of “all students can learn” and “the racism of low expectations.”

    This problem has been ongoing from the early 1970′s.

  2. Some years ago, I remember reading a study of racial/ethnic attitudes among college freshmen and seniors at highly competitive colleges. Seniors had significantly more negative views of both blacks and Hispanics (academically) than did freshmen. Viewed from the mis-match perspective, it wasn’t suprising; since those groups were disproportionately likely to have been admitted with lower academic credentials, they tended to cluster at the bottom of the class. Ergo, they were seen as less intelligent, competent etc. BTW, affirmative action is really unfair to kids from those groups whose academic credentials need no boost; they have a continous struggle to beat the stereotype.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Quel surprise.

    Sander at UCLA did a similar study to this for law schools. Affirmative action hurts.

    And people say that tracking is bad.

  4. So much in education comes down to the unintended consequences of ideas that are implemented for all the right reasons. Is this another example?

  5. There is a strong, positive correlation between MCAT scores, National Board passing scores and attainment of specialty board certification (orthopedics, internal medicine, anesthesia etc.). National Boards are required for licensure and specialty board certification is usually required for hospital privileges and for clinical practice overall.

    Is it really right, in an ethical sense, to admit to medical school those students whose test scores make it unlikely that they will become licensed physicians, let alone become board certified? Most physicians have very high debt levels; without licensure and board certification, it is difficult to repay that amount. Of course, if such AA students are given “special” scholarships to reduce or eliminate debt, that raises another ethical question about subsidizing those who are least likely to succeed. This happens at all levels; undergrad, professional and graduate.

  6. This problem has been ongoing from the early 1970?s.

    And commented on just about as long.  Universities have been using AA to pump up their admissions numbers, putting unsuspecting students in classes paced beyond their speed and discarding them when they can’t keep up.  It’s a racket, done to salve the consciences of the PC at the expense of those they are allegedly trying to help.