Affirmative Action: The Good, The Bad (And the Ugly?)

John Rosenberg, Discriminations, Feb. 22

The Chronicle of Education today reports on two studies (still unpublished) that were presented this week at a meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Douglas S. Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, and Mary J. Fischer, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut,

examined longitudinal student data from 28 selective colleges in an attempt to determine whether any evidence supported two of the most common criticisms of race-conscious admissions policies. Those are the “mismatch hypothesis,” which holds that such policies result in the admission of students who find themselves in over their heads academically, and the “stereotype-threat hypothesis,” which holds that such policies stigmatize all minority students as academically subpar, thereby placing them under a form of psychological pressure that undermines their academic performance.

The two researchers sought to gauge how much weight each college gave to applicants’ race or ethnicity by examining the difference between the average SAT scores of all students that they enrolled as freshmen in the fall of 1999 and the average SAT scores of the black and Hispanic members of that entering class. To try to measure how much of a role a particular student’s race or ethnicity played in his or her admission, the researchers looked at the difference between that person’s SAT score and the average for the entering class. (On average, black students’ SAT scores were 131 points below the average for all students at the 28 colleges, while Hispanic students’ SAT scores were 76 points below.)

The results, at least as summarized here, seem inconsistent.

The study found that those black and Hispanic students who had seemed to get the biggest break in admission actually tended to have slightly higher grade-point averages than other students, and were much less likely than other students to leave college. Their level of satisfaction with college was about the same as that of other students . . .

When all black and Hispanic students at an institution were examined collectively, however, evidence of “stereotype threat” emerged. The more a college used affirmative action, the lower were the grade-point averages of its minority students, and the more likely such students were to leave college and express dissatisfaction with their college experience. The negative correlation between a college’s commitment to affirmative action and the grade-point averages of its black and Hispanic students grew stronger the longer the students were in college, suggesting that the effects of “stereotype threat” mounted as the students became more accustomed to the campus culture.

I’m not sure what this means, but Prof. Massey seems to have no doubts.

“Affirmative-action programs don’t set minority students up to fail,” Mr. Massey said on Monday in an interview . . .

Mr. Massey said that, on balance, the positive effects of affirmative action on minority students outweighed the negative. Moreover, he said, colleges have found ways to counter the effects of “stereotype threat,” by, for example, hiring more minority faculty members.

You’ll not be surprised when I say that I have a few questions, although let me say again that my questions and concerns may well be addressed in the complete study, which I have not seen.

First, as I’ve had occasion to observe here before, comparing “the average SAT scores of all students that . . . enrolled as freshmen in the fall of 1999 and the average SAT scores of the black and Hispanic members of that entering class” minimizes the degree of preference awarded because the blacks and Hispanics were themselves members of the entering class. The more revealing comparison would have been between the scores of the blacks and Hispanics and the scores of those students (whites, Asians, others) not awarded any preference.

Second, if the grades of individual preferees increased with the amount of preference they received, why would the composite grades of all preferees go down as the amount of preference the school extended went up?

Third, how does Prof. Massey know that the explanation for the lower grades is “stereotype threat”?

Finally, on what evidence does Prof. Massey rely when he concludes “that, on balance, the positive effects of affirmative action on minority students outweighed the negative”? Did he find these “positive effects” in his study, or is it a conclusion not based on his survey results? Does he count the cost of compromising, or undermining, the principle that people should be treated without regard to race as a negative effect?

The second study, by Marta Tienda, a professor of sociology and public policy at Princeton, and Sunny Niu, a research associate in Princeton’s Office of Population Research, found that black and Hispanic students who attended integrated high schools in Texas were less likely to graduate in the top 10% of their class than those who attended minority-dominated schools, and that they were less likely to attend a selective college.

The researchers found, however, that the differences between high schools disappeared when the economic conditions of the students were taken into account, suggesting that it is the effects of high concentrations of poverty in minority high schools, rather than racism, that keeps many of their top graduates from enrolling in selective colleges.

I’m beginning to think that one of the strongest arguments for getting rid of racial preference is to be done with studies of it.


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