Monday, September 12, 2011

Knowledge is Power: Get the Facts on So-Called "Reverse Discrimination"

During the coming days, the UW-Madison community is going to get an earful about the Center for Equal Opportunity's commitment to "disadvantaged minorities." In an effort to ensure they get full access to the American Dream, these "thinkers" want to ensure they compete on a "level playing field," gaining admission to higher education "like everyone else." After all, we wouldn't want to put those poor folk at a further disadvantage by putting them in over their heads, surrounded by students with higher test scores we can assume they will sink.

You will hear this from white folks, mostly. But you will hear it from some brown folks too. Perhaps unexpectedly, even those in leadership positions on our own campus. Positions like these--heck all political positions--can be adopted by anyone. They just have to "believe."

Right now you need to get the facts. Researchers and legal scholars have been tackling these hot policy questions for a long time now, and here's what we know.

(1) Access to the American Dream requires access to at least some postsecondary education. If we keep people from college by providing them with inadequate academic preparation, sticking them in poor neighborhoods where violence predominates, we are not giving them a fair shot. That's not a meritocracy.

(2) Students who graduate from high school are on a highly uneven playing field when it comes to college admissions. Those born with moms and dads who attended college themselves, especially elite universities, have more financial, social, and cultural capital that makes college both expected and extremely likely. They also have higher test scores, in no small part because of the well-resourced environment in which they were raised. Other graduates have major barriers to overcome. Their high schools didn't offer AP classes, their teachers moved on every year, they suffered from inadequate nutrition and poor health care, and so much more. Or, maybe they had a pretty darned good life--except for the constant structural barriers constraining their family's ability to accumulate wealth and therefore move them to a great neighborhood and pay for private school. The playing field is rife with potholes.

(3) There is no one way to gain admission to college. People take all sorts of routes in--legacies, athletics, musical talents, etc. Universities exercise preferences based on where students grew up, what high school they attended, how many times they visit campus when looking, how much mom and dad plan to donate, etc.

(4) Once admitted, test scores play very little role in determining your chances of success. Being surrounded by an elite environment and peers with higher test scores does next to nothing--if anything at all-- to harm your chances of graduating. What can hurt you is when the university under-invests in your financial aid, has a climate that devalues folks like you, and doesn't focus its efforts for all students on degree completion. Oh, and when the state systematically disinvests in your education. Yeah, that's bad.

These are the facts. I will annotate this with references as soon as I'm able. Believe me, as a professor of sociology and higher education policy and chair of the university committee on this topic, we've got our facts straight. All the CEO has is myths and fear-mongering. Knock it down.

References for #4:
Methods matter a lot in these studies--those that fail to distinguish student characteristics from admissions practices in assessing effects produce highly biased results. The relevant studies are about the effects of mismatching students & colleges based on test scores- since the claim is that affirmative action promotes mismatch, these test for whether mismatch has negative effects

Jesse Rothstein, 2006, no evidence of mismatch effects in law school

Alon & Tienda (2005)
. No support for the mismatch hypothesis using national data

Grove & Hussey (2011). Little evidence supporting mismatch hypothesis using data on MBA programs

Ho (2005). Yale Law Review paper find no evidence affirmative action hurts law students.

*** A Must Read

Peter Hinrichs of Georgetown. "Affirmative action bans lead to fewer underrepresented minorities becoming graduates of selective colleges."