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Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It

reviewed by Thai-Huy Nguyen - February 15, 2013

coverTitle: Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It
Author(s): Richard Sander & Stuart Taylor Jr.
Publisher: Basic Books, New York
ISBN: 0465029965, Pages: 368, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr.’s Mismatch arrives at a time when the nation confronts, again, the debate over the fairness and effectiveness of affirmative action in postsecondary education. In their timely text, Sander and Taylor argue ferociously that affirmative action only harms, rather than benefits, racial minority students, and despite the overwhelming evidence supporting the former, they demonstrate how college and university administrators continue to advocate for racial preferences in undergraduate and graduate admissions. The concept of mismatch posits that the academic indices of students are not appropriately aligned with the standards of the universities where students choose to enroll, which can therefore undermine student performance. Although Mismatch can exist for any individual or group on a variety of measures, in this text the authors focus on how this concept is supported through racial preferences and by an academic culture that values compositional diversity, and operates by admitting a greater number of minority students, especially Blacks and Hispanics, to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, the success of their admission does not match their final outcomes. Due to mismatch, students admitted under racial preferences face greater academic challenges, and drop out or graduate with a very low cumulative GPA. Additionally, as elite institutions recruit the top achieving minority students, the effects of mismatch reverberate through the educational pipeline. For instance, students primed for third tier schools are admitted to second tier schools to fulfill a racial quota under the value of diversity, but because their academic preparation is misaligned with their institution they are more susceptible to academic failure. Drawing from rich and robust empirical research, interviews by students, faculty and administrators, and historical and legal analyses, Sander and Taylor offer a compelling argument that encourages the nation to be more mindful in how institutions serve all students in a manner that is both equitable and effective.

This text, especially for Sander, is both personal and scholarly. In part I, the authors discuss their personal backgrounds and how they came to realize the phenomenon underlying mismatch in American legal education, and how it has transpired across postsecondary education. Their personal perspective is a critical strength in the overall narrative because as they progress through demonstrating the dangers of mismatch, they also highlight the dangers of censorship, sanctions and academic politics that can hinder the basic tenets of academic freedom and opportunities for the advancement of knowledge. Sanders, the lead author, who has committed much of his academic career to documenting and illuminating the effects of mismatch, holds nothing back and offers the reader every detail describing the challenges and successes he has encountered in persuading various audiences that racial preference, affirmative action, was harming minority students because it placed them at a greater disadvantage than their peers who were admitted without preference. On this subject, the book is a true page-turner. In the latter half of Part I, the authors provide a primer on American affirmative action by discussing its ubiquitous nature in colleges and universities, and legal cases and current events that have shaped and influenced its reaches and effects on various groups. This was useful in understanding the effects of mismatch within our nation’s broader educational context.

Part II, “Stirrings of Mismatch,” included an extensive review of literature pertaining to the effects of affirmative action and a discussion on the credibility and flaws of research by other academics arguing against the existence or significance of the effects of mismatch Sander discovered in his initial analysis of law student performance and outcomes for students admitted through racial preference. Additionally, using UCLA law school (Sander’s home institution) data and the LSAC’s (Law School Admission Council) Longitudinal Bar Passage Study, they demonstrated that for Black students, failure on the bar exam was “not a function of age, race, or any other group characteristics—it was about larger preferences” (p. 61). Equally important and fascinating were the responses, which were largely negative, to Sander’s analyses and results from the legal and academic community. This text represents an opportunity for Sander to present his side of the story.

Part III, “The California Experiment: What Happens After a Legal Ban on Racial Preferences,” discusses the natural experiment in which California, through the passage of Prop. 209, banned affirmative action in all state institutions and agencies which gave way to the examination of the effects of eliminating racial preference on student outcomes. Post-Prop. 209, Sander and Taylor found racial minority enrollment decreased at the University of California (UC) System, which angered many UC administrators, faculty and students, but graduation rates for the same groups actually increased and distributed students more equitably across the university system. This finding was consistent with their theory behind mismatch; by reducing racial preferences, institutions admit a greater number of students who would likely graduate and succeed. Despite these effects and outcomes, any evidence or ideas in favor of anti-affirmative action continued to be criticized and hampered.

Part IV, “Law and Ideology,” and Part V, “The Way Forward,” discuss the broader implications of questioning the effectiveness of affirmative action and ways in which reform may offer more relevant action to widen and address equality through, for instance, socioeconomic status. Using the events at Duke University, where a group of economists conducted a study that demonstrated a greater number of low-achieving students leaving STEM fields, and at George Mason University School of Law, which according to the authors encountered persistent hostile criticism from the American Bar Association (ABA) for the lack of racial minority presence, despite the ABA’s unwillingness to provide the school with a clear definition of its expectations, the authors showcase how any evidence, intentional or not, against equality or opportunity for racial minority students are grounds for immediate labeling as racist or racism. Sander and Taylor also provide a discussion of prior landmark cases that have shaped how many public institutions develop their admission policies to achieve a higher enrollment of racial minority students today. Such a review of our nation’s history of affirmative action offers us insight into how we have engaged with issues of diversity and fairness, and foreshadows how Fisher v. University of Texas, the next case to be taken up by the Supreme Court, will influence and redefine boundaries of equity and justice.

Mismatch encourages the reader to consider what changes to the system must be made to achieve both equity and effectiveness for both students and colleges and universities. In their conclusion the authors advocate that institutions: 1) become more transparent in their use of preferences and that data be publicly accessible, 2) consider socioeconomic status, and perhaps how this indicator overlaps with race, to achieve diversity, and 3) eliminate race-based financial aid and scholarships to focus on increasing SES diversity.  

As a former university staff member and a current graduate student in the field of higher education, I am concerned about how mismatch is conceptualized and measured. For the authors, it is merely about inputs and outputs, but we know that institutions play a large role in student achievement. Are there qualitative dimensions in which a mismatch between student and institution occur? If so, are institutions that use large racial preferences to admit Blacks and Hispanics, but graduate a paltry number of them, doing a proper job of supporting minority student achievement? And although the evidence points out that under qualified students admitted largely through racial preference would perform better at lower-tiered institutions, what type of message would colleges and universities be sending to future students if they eliminated racial preferences? Such action may heighten the already stringent boundaries that already exclude a great number of students from elite institutions that we know can promise students and their families, and generations thereafter, continued upward social mobility and success. Overall, Sander and Taylor leave no stone unturned. This text is meticulously researched and well-written, and it should be welcomed in all circles debating the merits of affirmative action.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 15, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17023, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 12:12:12 AM

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About the Author
  • Thai-Huy Nguyen
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    THAI-HUY NGUYEN is a Ph.D. student in the Division of Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. His interests lie in the role of minority-serving institutions (MSIs) in improving educational and professional outcomes for racial minority and low-SES students. Thai-Huy currently serves as Project Manager for both the MSI Models of Success grant, which is a national study of student success, and the Diversity in Nursing grant, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded study evaluating best practices in recruiting, retaining and graduating underrepresented racial minorities in nursing. His work has been published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education and the Journal of Black Studies.
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