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.

Eric Gay/AP
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.'

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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