More Evidence That the Mismatch Theory Is Hogwash

Over the past several years there have been a number of scholars including Thomas Sowell of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Richard Sander of UCLA, and Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom who take the position that black students admitted to college or graduate school under affirmative action admissions plans are unable to compete with their white peers.

This so-called “mismatch” hypothesis holds that these black students would be better off at lower-tier institutions where they could better compete with whites and be more likely to achieve academic success.

Now comes a new article from the National Bureau of Economic Research authored by four professors at Duke University. The authors examined two classes of Duke University undergraduates. The researchers received cooperation from the university administration and they were given access to data that normally does not see the light of day.

For example, the paper notes that black students who enrolled at Duke had a mean combined reading and mathematics SAT score of 1281. For whites, the mean score was 1417, about 11 percent higher. Seventy-one percent of white students who enrolled had family income of more than $100,000 compared to 37 percent of black students. Entering black students at Duke tended to overestimate how well they would perform academically at Duke, much more so than whites.

The average first-year grade point average of white students at Duke was 3.33. For blacks, the average GPA was 2.90. Despite these differences, white students graduated at a rate of 90 percent, only slightly higher than the black rate of 88 percent. Thus, the authors conclude that they do not have any evidence to support the hypothesis that a mismatch has occurred.

But the authors raise an interesting question: Would black students who are admitted to Duke be likely to enroll somewhere else if they were notified of their probable academic performance at the university? If these students were provided with data on the grade point average of black students with similar backgrounds and standardized test scores who came to Duke before them, would they conclude that they were in fact mismatched and decide to go to a less selective college? 

The authors propose that admissions officers consider releasing more data so that students admitted under affirmative action would be able to make an informed decision on whether they can succeed academically at a particular institution. If black students with a particular test score knew that black students with similar test scores who attended the school previously had an average GPA of 2.5, they may consider enrolling at a less challenging college.