A Duke study documents the harm racial preferences in college admissions can do to the intended beneficiaries.
Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
A growing body of empirical evidence is undermining the claim that racial preferences in college benefit their recipients. Students who are admitted to schools for which they are inadequately prepared in fact learn less than they would in a student body that matches their own academic level. As an ongoing controversy at Duke University demonstrates, however, such pesky details may have no effect on the longevity of the preference regime.
Duke admits black students with SAT scores on average over one standard deviation below those of whites and Asians (blacks’ combined math and verbal SATs are 1275; whites’ are 1416, and Asians’, 1457). Not surprisingly, blacks’ grades in their first semester are significantly lower than those of other ethnic groups, but by senior year, the difference between black and white students’ grades has shrunk almost 50 percent. This convergence in GPA might seem to validate preferential admissions by suggesting that Duke identifies minority students with untapped academic potential who will narrow the gap with their white and Asian peers over their college careers.
Now three Duke researchers have demonstrated that such catching-up is illusory. Blacks improve their GPAs because they switch disproportionately out of more demanding science and economics majors into the humanities and soft social sciences, which grade much more liberally and require less work. If black students stayed in the sciences at the same rate as whites, there would be no convergence in GPAs. And even after their exodus from the sciences, blacks don’t improve their class standing in their four years of college.
This study, by economics professor Peter Arcidiacono, sociology professor Ken Spenner, and economics graduate student Esteban Aucejo, has major implications for the nationwide effort to increase the number of minority scientists. The federal government alone has spent billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money trying to boost minority participation in science; racial preferences play a key role in almost all college science initiatives. The Arcidiacono paper suggests that admitting aspiring minority scientists to schools where they are less prepared than their peers is counterproductive.
The most surprising finding of the study is that, of incoming students who reported a major, more than 76 percent of black male freshmen at Duke intended to major in the hard sciences or economics, higher even than the percentage of white male freshmen who anticipated such majors. But more than half of those would-be black science majors switched track in the course of their studies, while less than 8 percent of white males did, so that by senior year, only 35 percent of black males graduated with a science or economics degree, while more than 63 percent of white males did. Had those minority students who gave up their science aspirations taken Introductory Chemistry among students with similar levels of academic preparation, they would more likely have continued with their original course of study, as the unmatched record of historically black colleges in graduating science majors suggests. Instead, finding themselves in classrooms pitched at a more advanced level of math or science than they have yet mastered, preference recipients may conclude that they are not cut out for quantitative fields—or, equally likely, that the classroom “climate” is racist—whereas the problem may just be that they have not yet laid the foundations for more advanced work.
Attrition from a hard science major was wholly accounted for in the paper’s statistical models by a freshman’s level of academic qualifications; race was irrelevant. While science majors had SATs that were 50 points higher than students in the humanities in general, students who had started out in science and then switched had SATs that were 70 points lower than those of science majors. Any student in a class that assumes knowledge of advanced calculus is likely to drop out if he has not yet mastered basic calculus.
The Duke paper, whose methodology is watertight, deserves widespread attention among educators and policymakers. An amicus brief seeking Supreme Court review of racial preferences at the University of Texas (in a case called Fisher v. Texas) has brought the paper to the Court’s attention. Predictably, however, a number of black students, alumni, and professors have portrayed the research as a personal assault. Members of Duke’s Black Student Alliance held a silent vigil outside the school’s Martin Luther King Day celebration in protest of the paper and handed out fliers titled “Duke: A Hostile Environment for Its Black Students?” In an email to the state NAACP, the BSA called the paper “hurtful and alienating” and accused its authors of lacking “a genuine concern for proactively furthering the well-being of the black community.”
Naturally, the BSA has leveraged its protest into demands on the Duke administration for more black faculty and administrators and for more funding of black-themed programs. A Duke professor of English, women’s studies, and law, Karla Holloway, tweeted that the study “lacks academic rigor”—this women’s studies professor neglected to specify which of its algorithms she found flawed—and that it “re-opens old racial wounds.” A senior research scholar, Tim Tyson, wrote in an op-ed that the paper was a “political tract disguised as scholarly inquiry,” representing a “crusade to reduce the numbers of black students at elite institutions.” (Both Tyson and Holloway were active in the witch hunt against the three Duke lacrosse players who were falsely accused in 2006 of raping a black stripper.) A group of recent black Duke graduates called on the study’s authors to “stop their attack on students of color.”
To the extent that these critics tried to address the paper’s arguments, they missed its gist entirely. The Duke alumni alleged that black students “shy away” from “so-called ‘difficult’ majors” because they’ve been told all their lives that they are “inferior”—overlooking the fact that Duke’s black students “shied away” from the sciences only after starting out in those fields. Tyson claimed that black students choose the humanities over the sciences because they “come from cultural and intellectual traditions different than—not less than—most white students at Duke”—again, ignoring the fact that black students overwhelmingly intend to major in the sciences when they arrive at Duke. An essay by a professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University faulted the researchers for not exploring the “countless” ways in which “racism” denies black high school students equal access to SAT prep and Advanced Placement courses. But the focus of the major-switching paper was on what happened to minority students after they arrived at Duke, not before. Moreover, the paper did note that the racial difference in academic preparation is “not surprising, given disparities in resources between black and white families.”
The study’s critics also asserted that the intellectual demands of humanities and science majors are indistinguishable. Applying Ferdinand de Saussure (a 19th-century Swiss linguist invoked today only in literature classes) to The Matrix, it was claimed, is as challenging as mastering the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Here, too, the protesters ignored the paper’s empirical evidence: Seniors in the hard sciences have lower grades than freshmen in humanities and social sciences, even though the SATs of science majors are on average higher than those of humanities majors. For blacks, the disparity in grading is even greater. Black freshmen get higher grades in the humanities and social sciences than freshmen of all races get in the hard sciences, though black students’ test scores and overall grades are significantly lower than other students’. As for the coursework demands in the various fields, it is students themselves who report spending 50 percent more time studying for the hard sciences, and who rate those courses as more difficult than the humanities and the social sciences.
In a different world, the Duke administration might have tried to dispel some of the distortions of the Arci-diacono paper, given the authors’ patent lack of invidious intent and the rigor of their work. Instead, Duke’s top bureaucrats left the authors twisting in the wind. In an open letter to the campus, provost Peter Lange and a passel of deanlings declared: “We understand how the conclusions of the research paper can be interpreted in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes.” It is hard to imagine a more hypocritical utterance. To the extent that the paper reinforces “negative stereotypes,” it does so by describing the effects of Duke’s policy of admitting black students with lower academic qualifications than whites and Asians. It is Duke’s predilection for treating black students as a group whose race trumps their individual academic records that constitutes “stereotyping,” not the authors’ analysis of the consequences of that group thinking. (Campus spokesman Michael Schoenfeld ignored a request to specify the “negative stereotypes” that the paper might reinforce.)
But perhaps a concession to black anger had to be made to clear some space for a defense of the Arcidiacono paper? Not a chance. The deanlets and provosts followed their invocation of “negative stereotypes” with an anodyne generalization about academic freedom: “At the same time, our goal of academic success for all should not inhibit research and discussion to clarify important issues of academic choice and achievement.” In other words, don’t blame us for what these wacky professors might say.
The bureaucrats went on to explain the origins of the student database which the professors had used for their study, as if the very gathering of information had been called into question by the paper. (The Duke data repository was a response to William Bowen and Derek Bok’s 1999 study of college affirmative action, The Shape of the River, which had exposed the low grades of preference beneficiaries nationwide; the Duke data project was intended to identify and help resolve similar problems of underachievement locally. In other words, the Arcidiacano paper was squarely within the mandate of the Duke student database.) Duke has worked to create an “empowering, safe, and stigma-free environment” for students to get help in science, the administrators added, implicitly acknowledging that the administration has known for years about minority students’ struggles with science. (As for the nauseating women’s studies’ rhetoric about the need for “safe spaces” on campus, the idea that Duke is anything other than the cushiest, most supportive, most compassionate environment ever experienced by late adolescents is preposterous. The often-observed self-segregation of minority students at elite campuses into “safe,” race-themed “spaces” results, in large part, from preferential admissions and the resulting disparities in academic skills.)
Finally, as is de rigueur in all such flaps over “diversity,” the administration pledged to try even harder to be sensitive to Duke’s black students. “We welcome the call to action. Many people have been working for a long time to create a positive climate for African-American students. We look forward to ongoing conversations with BSA and others about ways that we can improve,” Schoenfeld penitently announced. Of course, as Schoenfeld meekly hints, Duke has been engaged in color-coded programming and funding for decades, pouring money into, to name just a few endeavors, a black student center, a black student recruiting weekend, and such bureaucratic sinecures as a vice provost for faculty diversity and faculty development and an associate vice provost for academic diversity, who, along with the faculty diversity task force and faculty diversity standing committee, ride herd over departmental hiring and monitor the progress of the 2003 10-point Faculty Diversity Initiative, which followed upon the previous 10-year Black Faculty Strategic Initiative. But no college administration in recent history has ever said to whining students of any race or gender: “Are you joking? We’ve kowtowed to your demands long enough, now go study!” And why should the burgeoning student services bureaucracy indulge in such honesty, for it depends on just such melodramatic displays of grievance for its very existence.
The BSA may have misunderstood the paper’s argument, but it was right about one thing: The Duke administration had completely ducked the substance of the study. Referring to the bureaucrats’ open letter, the BSA’s executive vice president told the campus newspaper: “They didn’t mention the words ‘race,’ ‘black’ or the phrase ‘affirmative action’ in their response, and we feel that this was a deliberate attempt to avoid directly addressing the issues at hand.” No kidding. The Duke hierarchy uttered not a word on the question whether the school’s black students were dropping out of the sciences because of their relative lack of preparation. It was as if Arcidiacono, Spenner, and Aucejo had committed a social transgression so embarrassing that the only polite thing to do was to ignore it.
The uproar over the major-switching paper has had its intended effect: Lead author Arcidiacono may be browbeaten out of affirmative action research. “Honestly, I’m not sure how much further I want to go with this line of inquiry,” he says. “I may have been naïve to think I could do this work.” Arcidiacono’s other scholarly focus, applied econometrics, has the distinct advantage that “no one gets upset” with you, he says. Moreover, economists understand the concept of distribution—to talk about average black academic preparation, for example, does not mean that there are no black students superbly qualified to study engineering and chemistry.
A handful of scholars have been documenting the negative consequences of so-called “academic mismatch,” but the scourging of Arcidiacono and his fellow authors cannot encourage many others to enter the fray. Nevertheless, the evidence is already strong that preferences are contributing to the undereducation of minorities. In 2005, UCLA law professor Richard Sander demonstrated that blacks admitted to law schools because of their race end up overwhelmingly in the lowest quarter of their class and have much greater difficulties passing the bar than students admitted on their merits. A working paper by Sander and UCLA statistician Roger Bolus extends the Arcidiacono analysis of students at Duke to a comparative setting: Science students with credentials more than one standard deviation below their peers’ are half as likely to graduate with science degrees as students with similar qualifications attending schools where their academic preparation matches their peers’.
As such findings mount, the conclusion will become inescapable: College leaders who continue to embrace affirmative action do so simply to flatter their own egos, so that they can gaze upon their “diverse” realm and bask in their noblesse oblige. Faced with the Arcidiacono analysis and other research like it, the responsible thing for Duke administrators to do would be to admit all students on the same basis, so that all would stand an equal chance of success in the most challenging majors. Getting rid of racial preferences would reduce Duke’s black population, now 10 percent of the student body, by half, but the half that remained would be fully competitive with their peers. Admittedly, such a drop in the black student census would trigger charges that Duke was hostile to minorities. And unless other schools reformed their own admissions policies, the students whom Duke would have admitted through racial preference would simply go to other elite institutions, where they would be just as handicapped by deficiencies in their academic preparation. All the more imperative, then, to air the mismatch research as widely as possible. But until it becomes possible to discuss the effects of preferences without being accused of racial animus, it may be impossible to dislodge academic affirmative action, no matter how discredited its purported justifications.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.