The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' Report on Affirmative Action in Law Schools
Gail Heriot

The Report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Affirmative Action in Law Schools is out.  It does not of course endorse the work of Richard Sander, whose research indicates that racial preferences in law school admissions have actually reduced the number of African American lawyers today.  But it takes the mismatch phenomenon seriously and calls for more research on the subject. (And it makes a few more recommendations that I will blog about later.)

One of the criticisms of Sander's conclusion is that it's so out of the blue.  If mismatch is such a terrible problem, why has no one else hit upon it?  But Sander's conclusion is hardly a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky. Indeed, Sander’s study in consistent with an increasing body of research.  The skies have been clouded up for some time.

Rogers Elliott, A. Christopher Strenta, et al. have looked at why African-American and Hispanic students are less likely to follow careers in science than white or Asian-American students. In 1996, they published "The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions," in which they found that African-American and Hispanic students at elite colleges and universities are about as likely as white or Asian-American students to start off intending to major in science. But they abandon those intentions in larger numbers. The authors concluded that mismatch probably played a major role:

Why are so many talented minority students, especially blacks, abandoning their initial interests and dropping from science when they attend highly selective schools? The question has many possible answers, but we will begin with the factor we think most important, the relatively low preparation of black aspirants to science in these schools, hence their poor competitive position in what is a highly competitive course of study. As in most predominantly-white institutions, and especially the more selective of them, whites and Asians were at a large comparative advantage by every science-relevant measure ..., and on the composite predictor, the Academic Index, they were at a 1.75 [standard deviation] advantage.

That it is the comparative rather than the absolute status of the qualifications is clear from two strands of evidence. First students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have quite low average SAT scores and high school grades ... but they produce 40% of black science and engineering degrees with only 20% of total black undergraduate enrollment. For example, with SATM scores averaging 400, half the students at Xavier University are reported to be majoring in natural science; with scores somewhat higher (about 450), Howard University is the top producer of black undergraduate science and engineering degrees....

[T]hat brings us to the other strand of evidence for the competition argument. .... [Our evidence] shows how science degrees are distributed within each institution as a function of terciles of the SATM distribution.... Put concretely, a student with a SATM score of 580 who wants to be in science will be three or four times more likely to persist at institutions ... where he or she is competitive, than at institutions ... where he or she is not. [Emphasis supplied.]

Similarly, in 2003, Drs. Stephen Cole and Elinor Barber published Increasing Faculty Diversity: The Occupational Choices of High Achieving Minority Students–a project funded by the Mellon Foundation. The authors’ mission was to determine why more minority members are not attracted to careers in academia. Their conclusions, reached after extensively questioning 7,612 high-achieving undergraduates at 34 colleges and universities, pointed to mismatch as the culprit:

The best-prepared African Americans, those with the highest SAT scores, are most likely to attend elite schools, especially the Ivy League. Because of affirmative action, these African Americans (those with the highest scores on the SAT) are admitted to schools where, on average, white students’ scores are substantially higher, exceeding those of African Americans by about 200 points or more. Not surprisingly, in this kind of competitive situation, African Americans get relatively low grades. It is a fact that in virtually all selective schools (colleges, law schools, medical schools, etc.) where racial preferences in admission is practiced, the majority of African American students end up in the lower quarter of their class....

African American students at the elite schools (the liberal arts colleges and the Ivy League) get lower grades than students with similar levels of academic preparation (as measured by SAT scores) than African American students at the nonelite schools (state universities and HBCUs). Lower grades lead to lower levels of academic self-confidence, which in turn influence the extent to which African American students will persist with a freshman interest in academia as a career. African American students at elite schools are significantly less likely to persist with an interest in academia than are their counterparts at nonelite schools.

No one can say for sure whether Sander will ultimately be proven right or wrong about whether racial preferences have decreased the number of African American attorneys.  The Commission's position is simply that research into this issue should be encouraged and not thwarted as Sander's critics are currently attempting to do.

https://rightcoast.typepad.com/rightcoast/2007/08/the-us-commissi.html

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