John McWhorter: the truth about mismatch

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source:  Information Processing

I’m shocked that CNN published Columbia professor John McWhorter’s editorial on Scalia’s mismatch comments. His remarks challenge the mainstream media narrative, and require some thought from the reader.

CNN: Those who consider themselves on black people’s side are having a field day dismissing Justice Antonin Scalia as a racist. His sin was suggesting that black students admitted to the most selective institutions might perform better at somewhat less selective institutions where instruction is paced more slowly.

I don’t usually agree with Justice Scalia’s perspectives, but we are doing him wrong on this one. Scalia didn’t express himself as gracefully as he could have. No one could suppose that anything like all black students find the pedagogical pace at top-level universities overwhelming.

However, Scalia’s comment stemmed not from random intuition but from research showing that a substantial number of black students would do better — and be happier — at schools less selective than the ones they are often admitted to via racial preferences.

The reading public’s response to Scalia’s point shows that few have any idea of this research or assume it was done by partisan zealots. An intelligent discussion of the Fisher v. University of Texas case now before the Supreme Court requires a quick tour of the facts.

… At Duke University, economist Peter Arcidiacono, with Esteban Aucejo and Joseph Hotz, has shown that the “mismatch” lowers the number of black scientists. Black students at a school where teaching is faster and assumes more background than they have often leave the major in frustration, but would be less likely to have done so at a school prepared to instruct them more carefully.

UCLA law professor Richard Sander conclusively showed in 2004 that “mismatched” law students are much more likely to cluster in the bottom of their classes and, especially, to fail the bar exam. Meanwhile, Sander and Stuart Taylor’s book argues that the mismatch problem damages the performance of black and brown students in general.

There are scholars who dispute Sander and Taylor’s thesis about undergraduate school in general. However, when it comes to the more specific points about STEM subjects and law school, takedown arguments are harder to fashion because of the simple force of the facts.

For example, on Sander’s widely publicized law school paper, time has passed and few of us go in for reading law review articles. However, Emily Bazelon’s widely read critique of it was hasty in claiming that the responses published along with Sander’s piece refuted his claims. Rather, anyone reading them with an open mind would see that they left Sander’s basic point standing tall and this applies to any other critique I have seen: there has been no “smackdown.” It is similarly unlikely that anyone could tell Arcidiacono, Aucejo and Hotz that what they chronicle was mirages.

… At the University of California, San Diego the year before racial preferences were banned in the late ’90s, exactly one black student out of 3,268 freshmen made honors. A few years later, after students who once would have been “mismatched” to flagship school UC Berkeley were now admitted to schools such as UC San Diego, one in five black freshmen were making honors, the same proportion as white ones.

What civil rights leader of the past would have seen this as racism? Who in the future will? Or why are we tarring Scalia as a bigot for espousing outcomes like this in the here and now?

Our national conversation on racial preferences is under-informed and mean when founded on an assumption that anyone who seriously questions racial preferences is naive at best and a pig at worst. Affirmative action is a complex matter upon which reasonable minds will differ. With the well-being of young people of color at stake, we can’t afford to pretend otherwise.

You could also have read about this topic in my NYTimes op-ed from 2012: Merit, Not Race, in College Admissions. The facts supporting mismatch are not disputable, despite the attempts of some ideologues to cloud the conversation.

I sometimes explain the issue as follows. Imagine taking a group of typical engineering students from Iowa State University and transferring them to MIT or Caltech in their freshman year. What are the odds that these students would thrive? What are the odds that they would cluster at the bottom of the class and learn less than they otherwise would had they stayed at Iowa State? Anyone who has taught STEM at both highly selective and less selective universities knows that large differences in admissions selectivity lead to large differences in average ability in the classroom (that is the whole purpose of selection!), and that the pace and presentation of material needs to be adjusted accordingly. In the example I gave, the SAT gap is perhaps 200 points (on a 1600 scale). But this is smaller than the admissions preference given to African Americans by most selective colleges (see Affirmative Action: the Numbers).

Why do we think the thought experiment would suddenly become a good idea if the students were black?

One might object that SAT or high school GPA are flawed measures of ability for under-represented minorities, but this has been studied carefully. The fact of the matter is that the accuracy of these numerical indicators as predictors of college performance varies little depending on the race or even socio-economic background of the student. (To be technical: adding an additional variable for race or income to the regression changes the SAT coefficient by very little.) That is, a student admitted with lower scores than their peers is unlikely to perform well in difficult STEM majors, regardless of the race of the student, and even if that student comes from a wealthy legacy family.

It’s also known that test preparation only improves SAT scores by a small fraction of the typical admissions preference (i.e., less than 50 points vs 300), and that test-retest reliability of the exam is very high. The tests measure something real, which has predictive power.

The consequences of selecting students based on academic ability are clearly manifested in this study by Jonathan Wai and myself: Colleges ranked by Nobel, Fields, Turing and National Academies output. Colleges with the most talented students (selected based on simple measures such as SAT and high school GPA) produce orders of magnitude more top scientists, engineers, and medical researchers per capita than less selective schools.

There is a sad pattern in the comprehensive Duke data that both McWhorter and I reference: students admitted with weak admissions scores are more likely to leave challenging STEM majors in favor of less competitive subjects, and they are more likely to perform poorly overall. This pattern holds regardless of the race or socio-economic status of the student.

Anyone who claims to have a serious interest in higher education (e.g., all professors and administrators) should be familiar with the facts presented above.

Note Added:

Two related editorials, one by Richard Sander in the WSJ and the other by Thomas Sowell.

Most of the analyses attacking mismatch have focused on graduation rates. But these ignore the fact that virtually all colleges have easy majors. Given the widely acknowledged practice of admitting wealthy applicants, legacies, and athletes with significantly below average scores, and the nearly 100% graduation rate at the Ivies, the conclusion has to be that there are paths of little resistance through most elite colleges. Surprisingly, it might be easier for a student of average ability (that is, relative to the overall population) to graduate from Harvard (once admitted), than to graduate from a typical state university — the key is choice of major.

IIRC, the migration of weaker students from STEM into less challenging majors is revealed in “real time” in the Duke data set, which contains every grade in every course for all students over a number of years. It also contains the application files of students and their original intended majors. Without this level of specificity, one can’t really make strong assertions about mismatch. I have yet to see any data driven analyses which contradict the mismatch hypothesis specifically as it applies to STEM or law school.

We should applaud Historically Black Colleges and Universities for taking students with modest test scores and yet producing graduates who go on to earn a disproportionate fraction of STEM PhDs, something Scalia alluded to in his (badly worded) remarks.

NSF: … Among known U.S. baccalaureate-origin institutions of 1997–2006 black S&E doctorate recipients, the top 8 and 20 of the top 50 were HBCUs. … The top 5 baccalaureate-origin institutions of 1997–2006 black S&E doctorate recipients were: Howard University, Spelman College, Hampton University, Florida A&M University, and Morehouse College.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.