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.
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Of course, as parents, we know that there are limits to what our children can achieve. Some kids may not be able to make the varsity team or the honor society. Still, they also cannot know their own limits until they confront challenges that test their capabilities and their determination. If they have the fortitude and the raw talent to take on these challenges, we should not slam the door in their faces and tell them that we are so sure they will fail that we refuse to even give them the opportunity to prove us wrong.Skip to next paragraph
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In their book “The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions,” William Bowen and Derek Bok, former presidents of Princeton University and Harvard University, respectively, confirmed that our parental instinct to encourage mismatches is on the mark. The book’s data revealed that racial minority students who benefited from affirmative action at elite schools graduated at higher rates than those at less selective institutions. And they earned advanced degrees at rates similar to their white peers.
The data that Mr. Bowen and Mr. Bok highlight also show that such students contributed to civic and community activities after college more than their white counterparts and made significant achievements in business and government upon graduation.
These findings are further affirmed by the work featured in the book “Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities” by Bowen; Matthew Chingos, a Brookings Institution fellow; and Michael S. McPherson, a former president of Macalester College.
“Crossing the Finish Line” revealed that students who are “undermatched” – meaning students who attended a college that was less selective than their credentials would have allowed them to attend (and thus should have been easier for them) – graduated at a lower rate than those students who “matched” – meaning students who attended a college that was as selective as their credentials would have allowed them to attend.
As this research shows, success in college, and later in life, is about more than just numbers; it is about resources, support of intellectual development, environment, networks, and numerous other factors.
In fact, as many of our parenting experiences have taught us, mismatches are not just good for the “outmatched,” but also for the “overmatched” – meaning those students at elite institutions with ample qualifications and privileged backgrounds. Much like Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor highlighted in Grutter v. the University of Michigan Law School, the “overmatched” benefit just as greatly from their diverse surroundings in elite institutions as the “outmatched.”
After all, through interactions with a diverse student body, they learn about different life experiences, the importance of working with others, and the strength that can come through diversity within teams.
Instead of bemoaning mismatches (and affirmative action policies), we should be striving to foster them.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig is the Charles and Marion Kierscht Professor of Law at the University of Iowa College of Law. She teaches and writes in the fields of anti-discrimination law and critical race theory. Her forthcoming book, “According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family” (Yale University Press), will be released in June.