The Underperformance Problem

Russell K. Nieli, Minding the Campus, September 2, 2010


This state of affairs [the gap in SAT scores] is well known uncomfortable though it may be to bring up in public. Less well known is what in the scholarly literature is called “the underperformance problem.” Once in college blacks with the same entering SAT scores as whites and Asians earn substantially lower grades over their college careers and wind up with substantially lower class rankings. This gap in grade performance, moreover, is not reduced by adding high school grades or socio-economic status to the criteria for matching students. Blacks equally matched with whites or Asians in terms of their entering scholastic credentials and socio-economic backgrounds simply do not perform as well as their Asian and white counterparts in college. And the degree of underperformance is often very substantial.

This is contrary to what many people have been led to believe. Standardized tests are “culturally biased,” it is said, and do not fairly indicate the abilities or promise of racial minorities growing up outside the dominant white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon culture. {snip} The “cultural bias” argument, however, is not only questionable on its face–since the clearly non-Anglo Saxon Asians do better than whites on most standardized tests of mathematical abilities including the SAT, while the equally non-Anglo Saxon Ashkenazic Jews outperform everyone else on tests of English verbal ability–but fails to account for the fact that in terms of grade performance blacks in college consistently do worse, not better, than their standardized test scores would predict. Standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT overpredict, not underpredict, how well blacks will do in college, and in this sense the tests are predictively biased in favor of blacks, not against them.

This “underperformance problem” has been well documented for over forty years. It first received widespread attention with the publication in 1985 of Robert Klitgaard’s outstanding monograph, Choosing Elites, which dealt with admissions to America’s most prestigious colleges and professional schools. It was also an important topic in William Bowen and Derek Bok’s The Shape of the River (1998)–the highly influential defense of racial preference policies at elite universities by former presidents of Princeton and Harvard. It was an important topic, too, in the two subsequent River Books sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–The Source of the River (2003), by Douglas Massey and his colleagues, and Taming the River (2009), by Camille Charles and her colleagues.

The scope of the underperformance problem is suggested in The Shape of the River. Using the College and Beyond (C&B) database consisting of detailed statistics on students at 28 highly selective liberal arts colleges and research universities, the authors found that blacks and whites were separated by a rank-in-class gap of 30 percentile points–white students averaged at the 53d percentile, blacks at the 23d. {snip} “This unmistakable pattern,” Bowen and Bok add, “is found not only in the C&B colleges but in professional schools as well.”

Stereotype Threat

{snip} Much of the problem that black college students encounter in achieving grades commensurate with their proven abilities, Steele [Claude Steele, a psychologist] believes, is due to their tendency to internalize the image of black intellectual inferiority projected by the wider culture. As a result of this internalization, blacks often experience heightened test anxiety, Steele says, and do more poorly on college exams than would be the case in the absence of such a race-linked handicap. Steele and other researchers have shown within laboratory settings that black students do considerably worse on tests if they are told that the test is designed to determine their intellectual abilities than if the test is presented in a less threatening manner as a simple exercise in showing the mechanics of problem solving. (While Steele will only say so when pushed, our current system of racial preferences that places blacks in institutions where they must compete with whites and Asians who have usually gained entrance under more exacting standards almost surely contributes to this stereotype vulnerability.)

{snip} Two salient and undisputed facts limit its [the stereotype threat theory’s] explanatory power. First, the problem of underperformance has been shown to extend far beyond the kinds of majors where test-taking is a central part of a student’s overall evaluation. In many humanities, social science, and history courses written assignments and term papers–not timed, in-class exams–are the basis of a student’s academic assessment but the underperformance of blacks has been shown to be an across-the-board phenomenon that is found even among black students majoring in these areas. {snip}

An even more serious problem with the stereotype threat explanation is the fact that {snip} blacks with the highest SAT scores and high school GPAs, many of whom have scores higher than the typical white or Asian student at the colleges they attend–and thus have good reason to feel intellectually superior, not inferior, to most of their classmates–are those underperforming the most. Those least likely to be troubled by feelings of intellectual inferiority or lack of academic self-confidence show the greatest performance gap when matched with whites and Asians of equivalently high SAT scores and high school grades.


The Disincentives of the Affirmative Action System

While acknowledging the probable effect of “stereotype threat,” authors like Bowen and Vars [William Bowen and Frederick Vars] realize that such an explanation goes only so far and cannot explain why blacks in all college subfields do worse than comparable whites and Asians, nor why it is the smartest blacks who underperform the most. The underperformance problem, however, is not nearly as enigmatic as these and other writers contend. Its most fundamental cause has been well explained in the past by critics of affirmative action in a manner that anyone with common sense can easily grasp. The real culprit here in discouraging black students to do their best and perform up to their potential, these critics explain, is the all-pervasive system of racial preferences that makes it much easier for black high school students to get into good colleges, and for black college students to gain access to good graduate schools, professional schools, and corporate sector jobs. The black students know that they don’t have to do nearly as well in school as their white and Asian classmates to reach the same level of acceptance and achievement

The Manhattan Institute scholar John McWhorter, a linguist by training, explains the situation in its most cogent terms drawing from both his own experience as a black high school student in a mixed-race Philadelphia private school and from his many years of teaching black college students at Berkeley. “I can attest,” McWhorter writes, “that in secondary school I quite deliberately refrained from working to my highest potential because I knew that I would be accepted to even top universities without doing so. Almost any black child knows from an early age that there is something called affirmative action which means that black students are admitted to schools under lower standards than white; I was aware of this [from] at least the age of ten. {snip} In general, one could think of few better ways to depress a race’s propensity for pushing itself to do its best in school than a policy ensuring that less-than-best efforts will have disproportionately high yield.”


{snip} Racial preferences, says Steele [Shelby Steele], send out the message to black students that “mediocrity will win for them what only excellence wins for others.” In view of this message, for many black students the most attractive strategy becomes one of sitting back in class, taking it easy in school in terms of studying and hard work, and letting the whites and Asians toil away to get their good grades. The black students, says Steele, know that they don’t have to perform at nearly the same level as their white and Asian schoolmates to advance along a similar career path. They can make up through race what they lack in performance.


The high-SAT blacks, who are often the most intellectually gifted and have the highest IQs, know that professional schools and graduate schools look high and low for black students of their intellectual caliber and will admit them with much lower grades than their white and Asian counterparts. Since it is the most competitive graduate and professional schools that extend the greatest affirmative action boost to black applicants, it is not surprising that it is the best and brightest blacks who underperform the most. They know they need not get grades in college that come anywhere close to those of their white and Asian classmates to gain places in the most prestigious graduate institutions and in the most sought after corporations and law firms. While some students are internally driven to achieve at their maximum regardless of external rewards, and others receive relentless grade pressure from home, this is not how typical American students behave, and certainly not typical black students. (Participant observer studies have shown just how half-heartedly many black teen subcultures support academic striving even when there is no overt subcultural hostility of the kind that would stigmatize getting good grades as “acting white.”).

A Threatening Truth

Despite its common sense appeal and the testimony of many prominent black commentators, the “preference disincentive theory” is rarely taken up by proponents of affirmative action. It appears to be too threatening to their policy preferences even to be considered very seriously lest it turn out to be true{snip}


Academic work in college is often arduous and demanding and surely less attractive for most young people than the alternatives of socializing with friends, listening to music, playing sports, and the like. Trade-offs will be made, and if black students are told that they can advance just as fast and go just as far in their career trajectory as similarly talented white or Asian students while doing much less demanding academic work than these other students, it is a deal many black students will readily accept. {snip}

None of what I have said here is rocket science or string theory. The failure of the academic establishment to acknowledge the obvious here in understanding the underperformance phenomenon can only be chalked up to a fear of discrediting the affirmative action policies they have long championed.


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