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Opinion

Supreme Court affirmative action decision: Don't be fooled by flawed theories

One of the most specious arguments the Supreme Court has heard in the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case deals with 'mismatch theory.' It says affirmative action harms minorities because it puts them in universities where they are outmatched by their peers.

By Angela Onwuachi-WilligOp-ed contributor / May 28, 2013

University of Texas senior Bradley Poole poses for a photo on campus near the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in Austin, Texas, March 5. The Supreme Court is set to hand down a decision in the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case. Op-ed contributor Angela Onwuachi-Willig writes: '[M]y own experiences as a parent have taught me that, when children are 'outmatched,' they often grow the most.'

Eric Gay/AP

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Grinnell, Iowa

The Supreme Court’s much-awaited decision on affirmative action in the Fisher v. University of Texas case could be handed down as soon as this Tuesday, May 28. The court – and the public – have heard a host of arguments both for and against the practice. One opposing argument in particular has been more specious than many of the others.

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For nearly a decade, UCLA Law professor Richard Sander has demanded an overhaul of affirmative action practices at colleges and universities, citing his own research on the “mismatch” theory. According to Mr. Sander’s theory, affirmative action harms blacks and Latinos because it pushes them into situations (elite universities) where their peers outmatch them in standardized test scores. This “mismatch,” Sander claims, leads to underperformance, which then leads to the students’ failure to achieve their ultimate goals.

Scholars have been quick to point out holes in the mismatch argument. For example, scholars have highlighted how Sander’s research fails to capture the complexities of admissions decisionmaking, which is not simply based on test scores, but instead involves holistic reviews of the many well-qualified students who are vying for limited seats at competitive institutions.

Scholars also have noted how Sander’s analysis does not adequately take into account the impact of hostile racial environments (at elite institutions) on student performance. They have further noted how the mismatch theory improperly rests on one narrow view of merit, failing to acknowledge the many ways in which different students may be mismatched against one another. Other research shows that students who enter elite institutions under affirmative action policies excel – even more than their white peers.

Indeed, as anyone who has attended college will tell you, there are a plethora of factors that determine a student’s success or struggle in college. And my own experiences as a parent have taught me that, when children are “outmatched,” they often grow the most both in confidence and ability.

Recently, my 10-year-old daughter reminded me of this very point when she engaged in actions that demonstrated exactly why Sander’s mismatch theory fails in many instances. Unlike most girls, my daughter has maintained an interest in math, robotics, and numerous other things that her physics professor father is geekily proud of and, more important, that boys seem to dominate even at the tender age of 10.

This year, my daughter joined the chess club. Having never played chess before and having parents who were not chess players, she was initially “outmatched” by her peers, most of whom had been playing for years. However, over time and with training and the constant challenge of being “outmatched,” she has become one of the stronger players in her group.

Like thousands of college students who have benefited from affirmative action programs over the past three decades, my daughter possessed the native intelligence and skill for the program she was joining. Having the additional challenge of being outmatched brought out the best in her and pushed her to excel. As my former colleague Alan Brownstein from the University of California, Davis School of Law once said to me, “Mismatch is what we want for our kids.”

Indeed, those of us who are parents tell our children to seek mismatches all the time. When our children want to improve their basketball skills, we do not tell them, “Play basketball with kids who play just at your level or lower.” Instead, we say, “Find the best players because playing with them will improve your skills. It will make you better, stronger, wiser.”

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