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.