Affirmative Action Doesn't Increase Minority Drop-Out Rates. (Also, a Cato Institute report is less than honest – there's a shocker.)

In the comments of an earlier post, Robert Hayes has been arguing that racial preferences in college admission are bad because they harm minority students through what Robert calls “the ratchet effect.” But “the ratchet effect,” as Robert describes it, is dependent on what social scientists have called the “fit hypothesis” or “the mismatch hypothesis.” If mismatch isn’t true, neither is ratchet.

So what is the mismatch hypothesis? Robert describes the mismatch hypothesis perfectly when he writes:

People who get racial preferences turn in dreadful statistics on completion and performance in academia. […] The cost of the policy isn’t paid by the institutions, it’s paid by the students. It’s paid by the really bright black kid who would do great at Cornell but fails out of Yale. It’s paid by the decently bright Hispanic kid who would do great at UT but fails out of Cornell. It’s paid by the adequate fill-in-the-blank kid who would have done fine at Oklahoma State but who can’t cut it at UT.

That’s an exact description of what the mismatch hypothesis claims. Asked to provide evidence for his argument, Robert linked to this Cato Institute report (pdf link).1 But Cato’s discussion of drop out rates, written by Marie Gryphon, is shoddy at best. Empirical evidence shows that the mismatch hypothosis is fiction. The truth is, minority students in colleges that practice AA are more likely to graduate than minority students with identical academic “qualifications” (i.e., SAT scores, class rank, etc.) who attend less-highly-ranked colleges.

How can this be? Doesn’t common sense tell us that putting less-prepared students in a harder college is a recipe for creating drop-outs — that “the really bright black kid who would do great at Cornell… fails out of Yale,” as Rob said?

This is a case where “common sense” is mistaken. There are many reasons why that really bright black kid might be more likely to graduate from Yale. One strong possibility is that high-status schools have better support systems for students. Another is that the peer groups at high-status schools create a social evironment in which better academic habits are a norm. Higher-quality teachers and TAs could make a difference. As social scientists Alon and Tienda write, “empirical studies have repeatedly demonstrated the advantages of placing students in higher ability groups with better instruction, less distraction, more time spent on task, more academic role models, and more serious learning climates.”

Having more grants (rather than loans) available to undergraduates also makes a difference.2

The exact mechanisms will require further research to pin down, but it seems likely that all of the above factors contribute in some way to lower drop-out rates for minorities in higher-status schools, compared to similarly-qualified (i.e., SATs, class rank, etc) minority students in lower-status schools.

So what kind of evidence do right-wingers marshall to deny the facts? Let’s look at the Cato report Robert cited. Cato’s researcher, Marie Gryphon, begins by criticizing Bowen and Bok’s well-known study The Shape of The River,3 which examined outcomes for minority students at a group of top-tier colleges. In this article, Bowen summarized some of his and Bok’s findings:

First, there is no systemic evidence that race-sensitive admissions policies tend to “harm the beneficiaries” by putting them in settings in which they are overmatched intellectually or “stigmatized” to the point that they would have been better off attending a less selective institution. On the contrary, extensive analysis of data reported in The Shape of the River shows that minority students at selective schools have, overall, performed well. The more selective the school that they attended, the more likely they were to graduate and earn advanced degrees, the happier they were with their college experience, and the more successful they were in later life.

Second, the available evidence disposes of the argument that the substitution of “race-sensitive” for “race-neutral” admissions policies has led to admission of many minority students who are not well-suited to take advantage of the educational opportunities they are being offered. Examination of the later accomplishments of those students who would have been “retrospectively rejected” under race-neutral policies shows that they did just as well as a hypothetical reference group that might have been admitted if GPAs and test scores had been the primary criteria (which is, itself, a questionable assumption). There are no significant differences in graduation rates, advanced-degree attainment, earnings, civic contributions, or satisfactions with college.

Gryphon criticizes The Shape of the River by claiming “Bowen and Bok argued on the basis of SAT scores alone that equally qualified students are actually more likely to graduate if they attend more selective schools.” But that’s simply not true: Bowen and Bok also analyzed class rank (based on GPA) and SATs together, but still found that minority students are more likely to graduate when they attend high-status colleges. (Gryphon grudgingly acknowledges this in endnotes, where few readers will see it.)

Gryphon continues:

Economists did subsequently analyze the question of dropout rates in more detail and got very different results than Bowen and Bok. Economists Audrey Light and Wayne Strayer were able to better predict university completion patterns among students of different abilities. They did this by using methods that took into account unmeasured student qualities…. When student differences were held equal, Light and Strayer found that the likelihood of graduating from college depended on how close the “fit” was between a given student and his or her classmates in terms of academic preparedness. They write: “Our estimates reveal that the ‘match’ between student ability and college quality does have a causal effect on college completion.”

Gryphon’s footnotes credit these findings to a 2000 study published in The Journal of Human Resources.4 But when I looked the study up, I was surprised to find that far from using a deeper measure of student achievement, Light and Strayer did just what Gryphon falsely accused The Shape Of The River of: they used a single test score (the AFQT)5 as their sole measure of academic ability.

Furthermore, Light and Strayer’s Journal of Human Resources study isn’t well designed to address the question of affirmative action and “mismatched” minority students. The relevant question isn’t if students as a whole are more likely to graduate from high-status schools if they have high AFQT scores (which is what Light and Strayer’s study primarily addresses), but if students whose college placement might be affected by affirmative action – that is, black and hispanic students – are more likely to graduate from high-status schools than otherwise similarly “qualified” (i.e., identical SATs, class rank, etc) black and hispanic students at slightly lower-status schools. Although this study implies that affirmative action policies “may” lower the chances of graduation for some students, the question can’t really be answered without a more focused study design.

Interestingly, a later study by the same authors and using the same data source specifically addresses the question of affirmative action and college graduation.6 So why doesn’t Gryphon discuss this later, more relevant study (apart from one mention buried in endnotes)? It’s obvious why: In their later study, Light and Strayer conclude that the data is “consistent with the notion that racial preferences in college admissions boost minorities’ chances of attending college and that retention programs directed at minority students subsequently enhance their chances of earning a degree.”

Light and Strayer rightly caution readers not to take their work as conclusive evidence that affirmative action works (there could be unmeasured confounding factors). Nonetheless, Light and Strayer’s results are not consistant with Gryphon’s claim that affirmative action is hurting minorities by pushing them into harder universities.7

A third, more recent study, by Sigal Alon of Tel Aviv University and Marta Tienda of Princeton,8 uses a more thorough methodology than either Light and Strayer or The Shape of The River (among many technical improvements, their analysis includes asians and hispanic students as well as black and white students). Alon and Tienda conclude:

…Our results are consistent with claims that minority students thrive at selective postsecondary institutions, despite their disadvantaged starting lines (Bowen and Bok 1998; Massey et al. 2003). Minority students’ likelihood of graduation increases as the selectivity of the institution attended rises. Our findings, based on three data sets and several analytical methods, suggest that the mismatch hypothesis is empirically groundless for black and Hispanic (as well as for white and Asian) students who attended college during the 1980s and early 1990s. On the basis of the robust evidence we presented, we conclude that affirmative action practices both broaden educational opportunities for minority students and enable minority students to realize their full potential.

These findings clearly demonstrate the advantages that are associated with attending a more-selective institution and call for future research to identify the mechanisms that produce such an advantage.

The evidence is clear:There is no “mismatch” problem with affirmative action. Being able to attend better universities increases the odds that black and hispanic students will graduate. Right-wing proposals to eliminate affirmative action, far from helping hispanic and black students, would deprive some minority students of access to the best colleges while lowering their odds of graduating.

[Crossposted at Creative Destruction. If your comments aren’t being approved here, try there.]

* * *

UPDATE: Robert responds to me here.

  1. The Cato Institute is a right-wing think tank with a pro-market emphasis. []
  2. Alon, Sigai. 2004, October 28-30. “The Influence of Financial Aid in Leveling Croup Differences in Persistence among Students Attending Selective Private Institutions.” Paper presented at the conference of the Association for Public Policy and Management, Atlanta, GA. Cited in Alon and Tienda, 2005. []
  3. William G. Bowen and Derek Bok (1988), The Shape of the River, Princeton: Princeton University Press. []
  4. Audrey Light and Wayne Strayer (2000), “Determinants of College Completion: School Quality or Student Ability?” Journal of Human Resources v35. []
  5. AFQT stands for “Armed Forces Qualifying Test”; there are legitimate reasons for social scientists to use the AFQT, but it’s no better than the SATs as a measure of academic ability, and it’s ability to predict future college performance – like the SATs – is mediocre. []
  6. Audrey Light and Wayne Strayer (2002), “From Bakke to Hopwood: Does Race Affect College Attendance and Completion?” Review of Economics and Statistics, p. 34. []
  7. Gryphon dances around this in endnotes by falsely claiming that the second, more applicable Light and Strayer study is only about “the most highly selective schools,” but that’s not true; Light and Strayer specifically say their results are for “colleges of all selectivity levels,” and anyhow, both studies use the same database. []
  8. Sigal Alon and Marta Tienda (2005), “Assessing the ‘Mismatch’ Hypothesis: Differences in College Graduation Rates by Institutional Selectivity,” Sociology of Education, Vol. 78 (October): 294-315. []
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7 Responses to Affirmative Action Doesn't Increase Minority Drop-Out Rates. (Also, a Cato Institute report is less than honest – there's a shocker.)

  1. 1
    Robert says:

    A lovely (and soon to be wriggling feebly in the crushing grip of reason) response. I cannot answer it tonight (deadlines) and most likely will not be able to answer it tomorrow (driving my stepkids to the @%^@%! airport), but I will answer it, most likely in a full post at CD. I’ll comment here when I do that so anyone wishing to follow the conversation will be able to do so.

  2. 2
    Stentor says:

    The mismatch hypothesis assumes that higher-prestige schools are substantially more academically challenging (and in Robert’s example, that the differences exist at a fairly fine-grained level, e.g. between a high-prestige Ivy like Yale and a lower-prestige Ivy like Cornell*). While I’m sure there are differences in the quality of educational experience you get at different schools, I wonder how much of it is really due to the better schools being harder.

    *Assuming he meant Cornell U., not Cornell College in Iowa.

  3. 4
    Rachel S. says:

    I think it’s Marta Tienda. You can delete this comment, but you should double check.

  4. 5
    Decnavda says:

    What Stentor said. Isn’t the cliche about the Ivy Leauge that you have to be genius to get in and an idiot to flunk out? Presumeably, getting in through affirmative action or as a legacy could substitute for being a genius, and there are enough applicants that most affirmative action or legacy spots could be filled with non-idiots.

  5. 6
    Ampersand says:

    I think it’s Marta Tienda.

    Right you are. Thanks for the correction – I’ve fixed it in the post.

  6. 7
    P6 says:

    Gods, this is an old argument. I posted this two years ago.

    In commenting on Universities Record Drop In Black Admissions, Molotov says:

    We predict that the black graduation rate will significantly increase, because of the better match between schools and students' abilities. Affirmative action costs blacks in future income, because unqualified folks at certain elite schools drop out when they would have done well at other academic institutions.

    This is absurd. Harvard or UVa teaches nothing other colleges don't. The skills needed are the same. And frankly, competition is less valuable than education as a marker of success…those that pass the course work are qualified, and any number of people who were rejected outright would have passed the course work. The comment is apparently based on a preliminary draft of an article Richard Sanders, a law professor at UCLA. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a good overview of the arguments Sandler presents.

    His study, "A Systemic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools," found that: After the first year of law school, 51 percent of black students have grade-point averages that place them in the bottom tenth of their classes, compared with 5 percent of white students. "Evidence suggests that when you're doing that badly, you're learning less than if you were in the middle of a class" at a less-prestigious law school, Mr. Sander says. [P6: And yet this

    Two of the authors — David L. Chambers, an emeritus professor of law, and Richard O. Lempert, a law professor, both at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor — are no strangers to the affirmative-action debate. In 2000 they published a study that found that minority students who graduated from Michigan's law school between 1970 and 1996 were just as successful in their careers as their white peers, even though they started with significantly lower law-school grades and standardized-test scores.

    shows evidence suggests those particular indicators just aren't a good gauge.] Among students who entered law school in 1991, about 80 percent of white students graduated and passed the bar on their first attempt, compared with just 45 percent of black students. In a race-blind admissions system, the number of black graduates passing the bar the first time would jump to 74 percent, he says, based on his statistical analysis of how higher grades in less competitive schools would result in higher bar scores. Black students are nearly six times as likely as whites not to pass state bar exams after multiple attempts. Ending affirmative action would increase the number of new black lawyers by 8.8 percent because students would attend law schools where they would struggle less and learn more, earn higher grades, and have better success on the job market. All specious as hell from the student's perspective.

    Kathy Hart, a 2003 Harvard Law School graduate who is now working for a law firm in Boston, says racial preferences are not the issue. "The problem is not so much the entry; it's what happens while you're there," says Ms. Hart, who is black. As a minority law student, "you're more likely to feel isolated and marginalized, and feel like 'nobody gets my experience.'" That, in turn, can undermine a student's confidence, she says.

    And since when does struggling less mean learning more? His last point i found especially interesting

    With the exception of the most-elite law schools, good grades matter more to employers than the law school's prestige.

    …because we are, after all, talking about the very most-elite law schools he admits are the exception. A technical response to Sanders' article is available …I figure since Sanders leaked his article before publication, leaking the reply is cool. But I personally want to note a couple of things. First of all, it's obvious what the elite schools provide that makes attending one a valuable experience: connections. And since we know from Prof. Chambers and Lempert's work the success of one's education is not totally reflected by the grade markers in use (and we know this as regard women as well), since we know stereotype threat is a real problem because it transcends both race and gender, I would think we need more research along the lines of Factors Affecting the Completion of Undergraduate Degrees in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics for Underrepresented Minority Students, done for California State University, or Work in Progress – Cognitive, Affective and Social Factors Contributing to the Success in Undergraduate Computer Science and Engineering Education, proposed at the 34th annual Frontiers in Education conference. Research that finds those additional factors for success so they can be used across the board.