Just Say No to Affirmative Action

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  1. 1.

    See, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Encouraging Minority Students to Pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Careers, Briefing Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2010), http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/gpo8540/EncouragingMinorityStudentsinScienceCareers.pdf. Apart from the considerations discussed in this report, there may indeed be something special about the education available from America’s most academically competitive colleges and universities. It should be noted, however, that some of the most sophisticated research available suggests that when it comes to increasing one’s income, elite schools are not exactly the ticket. See Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger, “Estimating the Payoff to a Highly Selective College,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 117, no. 4 (November 2002): 1491–1527. Graduates of Ivy League institutions are indeed high earners. But, if this research is correct, this is simply a reflection of the fact that very talented students attend those schools. If the same students had attended less prestigious schools, they would have done on average just as well financially.

  2. 2.

    Dana Milbank, “Education: Shortage of Scientists Approaches a Crisis as More Students Drop Out of the Field,” Wall Street Journal, September 17, 1990.

  3. 3.

    See part C.

  4. 4.

    See part C.

  5. 5.

    As one early researcher on this topic put it, there is an academic advantage to being a “big frog” in the “frog pond.” James A. Davis, “The Campus as a Frog Pond: An Application of the Theory of Relative Deprivation to Career Decisions of College Men,” American Journal of Sociology 72, no. 1 (July 1966): 17–31. This article was written well before the concept of mismatch came to be associated with the controversy over affirmative action and was not focused specifically on science and engineering. Davis found that college GPA is more strongly correlated with career choice than is quality of institution. In other words, while students take both their college grades and the academic quality of the school they are attending into account in evaluating their career choices, they tend to place more emphasis on college grades. A student at the bottom of his very elite class will tend to underestimate his abilities, while a student at the top of a class at a mediocre school will tend to over-estimate them. Davis concludes: “[T]hese ideas have some implications for educational policy. At the level of the individual, they challenge the notion that getting into the ‘best possible’ school is the most efficient route to occupational mobility. Counselors and parents might well consider the drawbacks as well as the advantages of sending a boy to a ‘fine’ college, if, when doing so, it is fairly certain he will end up in the bottom ranks of his graduating class” (30–31).

  6. 6.

    See, e.g., Thomas Sowell, Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas (New York: The Free Press, 1993).

  7. 7.

    Mismatch may be positive or negative. If a typical Cal Tech freshman were to take a Basic Physics class designed for law professors like me, many of whom have never excelled at science, he would likely learn less than he would have in a class with his fellow Cal Tech students. Coasting through a “Basic Physics for Dilettantes” course, he would be the victim of positive mismatch, while I am negatively mismatched in the hypothetical.

  8. 8.

    The empirical studies discussed in part C do not distinguish among the reasons that mismatched students might drop out of science and engineering more often than non-mismatched students with similar credentials. They simply record that they disproportionately do so. Is it just because they perceive that they aren’t doing well relative to other students and hence lack confidence in themselves? Or are they actually learning less than their similarly-credentialed counterparts who persevere in science or engineering at somewhat less elite institutions? Or both? There is, at present, no national examination for science and engineering achievement that would allow researchers to determine whether college students who were mismatched and dropped out of science or engineering actually learned less than their counterparts at less elite schools who took similar courses. The intuitive answer is that they did and that their self-confidence was also shaken in the process. But it is unnecessary at this point to draw a distinction. The law school experience is clearer, since law students must pass a bar examination in order to practice law. There is empirical evidence that mismatched law students are less likely to pass the bar examination than their non-mismatched counterparts at less elite schools. See Richard Sander, “A Systemic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools,” Stanford Law Review 57, no. 2 (November 2004): 393.

  9. 9.

    While the Supreme Court case of Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003), was pending before the Supreme Court, much publicity centered around the fact that the University of Michigan routinely added the equivalent of an entire letter grade to the admissions index of underrepresented minority students. An African American student with a high school grade point average of 2.95 would thus be preferred to an Asian American student with a high school grade point average of 3.94 (just shy of straight As), all other things being equal. The Gratz case rejected such a formulaic approach, but it did not reject the size of the preference granted to minority students. And indeed, the evidence suggests that the size of the preference actually grew at the University of Michigan in the period following the Gratz decision (see note 34).

    Michigan’s policies were not more over-the-top than those of other universities. Lawsuits filed against the University of Georgia, the University of Texas, and the University of Washington prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Gratz brought to light similar practices. Hopwood v. Texas, 78F.3d 932 (5th Cir. 1996), cert. denied 518 U.S. 1033 (1996) (law school); Smith v. University of Washington, 233F. 3d. 1188 (9th Cir. 2000) (law school); Johnson v. Board of Regents, 106F. Supp. 2d 1362 (S.D. Ga. 2000), aff’d, 263F.3d 1234 (11th Cir. 2001) (undergraduate admissions). See also Robert Lerner and Althea Nagai, “Racial and Ethnic Preferences in Undergraduate Admissions at Six North Carolina Public Universities,” Center for Equal Opportunity, May 28, 2007, http://www.ceousa.org/content/view/442/100/, which found similar preferences at competitive North Carolina universities.

    Some of the most discriminatory policies are at professional schools. At law schools, for example, the average black student has an academic index that is more than two standard deviations below that of his average white classmate. See Sander, “Systemic Analysis,” 367, 393.

  10. 10.

    In addition, many have asserted that there is a shortage of Americans trained in science and engineering and that this shortage will likely get worse. If a particular segment of the population is underrepresented in these fields, it is only prudent to look into what can be done to increase their participation. National Science Foundation, Division of Policy Research and Analysis, Future Scarcities of Scientists and Engineers: Problems and Solutions (Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 1990).

  11. 11.

    Richard Sander and Roger Bolus, “Do Credentials Gaps in College Reduce the Number of Minority Science Graduates?” working paper 2, July 2009 draft (using data from 2003).

  12. 12.

    Ibid. Unlike African Americans, Hispanics in science and engineering do not appear to be underrepresented relative to Hispanics in other college disciplines, such as the humanities. Relative to their initial interest, however, they are underrepresented. Ordinarily, one would expect a language minority to be overrepresented in science and engineering, since those disciplines do not require the same language skills as the humanities.

  13. 13.

    Elizabeth Culotta and Ann Gibbons, “Minorities in Science: Two Generations of Struggle: Special Report Overview,” Science 258, issue 5085 (November 13, 1992), 1176.

  14. 14.

    Calvin Sims, “What Went Wrong: Why Programs Failed,” Science 258, issue 5085 (November 13, 1992), 1185.

  15. 15.

    Ibid., 1187.

  16. 16.


  17. 17.

    Frederick L. Smyth and John J. McArdle, “Ethnic and Gender Differences in Science Graduation at Selective Colleges with Implications for Admission Policy and College Choice,” Research in Higher Education 45, no. 4 (June 2004): 353, 357, calling this finding “consistent” and citing a number of studies dating back to the late 1970s.

  18. 18.

    Alexander W. Astin and Helen S. Astin, table 3.5, Undergraduate Science Education: The Impact of Different College Environments on the Educational Pipeline in the Sciences (Los Angeles, CA: University of California at Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute, 1992), 3–9, http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED362404.pdf.

  19. 19.

    Rogers Elliott et al., “The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions,” Research in Higher Education 37, no. 6 (1996): 681, 692–93.

  20. 20.

    Sander and Bolus, “Credentials Gaps in College,” 3. Sander and Bolus also report that among the University of California students enrolling from 1992 to 2006, 52.6 percent of Asians declared an intention to major in science and engineering, as did 37.5 percent of blacks/Hispanics and 34.7 percent of whites.

  21. 21.

    Elliott et al., “The Role of Ethnicity,” 694. See also National Science Foundation, Future Scarcities of Scientists and Engineers, finding persistence rates of 43 percent for majority students and 21 percent for minority students; T.L. Hilton, J. Hsia, D.G. Solorzano, and N.L. Benton, “Persistence in Science of High Ability Minority Students,” Journal of Higher Education 69, no. 6 (November-December 1998): 589–620, reporting that 54 percent of Asian, 44 percent of white, 36 percent of black, and 29 percent of Latino high school seniors who had intended to attend college and major in science or engineering were doing so two years later.

  22. 22.

    Smyth and McArdle, “Ethnic and Gender Differences,” 361–63.

  23. 23.

    Astin and Astin, Undergraduate Science Education, table 3.5, 3–9; Elliott et al., “The Role of Ethnicity,” 694; Smyth and McArdle, “Ethnic and Gender Differences,” 357; Sander and Bolus, “Credentials Gaps in College.”

  24. 24.

    Ibid. See also William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

  25. 25.

    Elliott et al., “The Role of Ethnicity.”

  26. 26.

    Ibid. Among the credentials that mattered most were number of science courses taken, average grades in high school science courses, and SAT Mathematics score.

  27. 27.

    Ibid., 701

  28. 28.

    Ibid, 702. This estimate, of course, was based on the assumption that the student started out with a desire to major in science or engineering. Whether a student with no particular plans to major in science or engineering is more likely to graduate with a science or engineering degree if he attends a school to which he is properly matched is a more complex matter. As the Elliott team demonstrated, students with higher SAT Mathematics scores are more likely to begin college with a desire to major in science. Consequently, institutions A–E likely have more students interested in pursuing science than institutions F–K and thus would naturally be expected to award a higher proportion of science degrees, since that is what their students desire. And indeed they did. The Elliott team reported that institutions A–E were about twice as likely to award science degrees as institutions F–K, with about 28 percent of the first group’s bachelor’s degrees and about 15 percent of the second group’s being in science. Nevertheless, as they point out, “a 54% chance of getting one of the 15% of the degrees that are in science is nearly twice as good as a 15% chance of getting one of the 28% of degrees that are in science.” Ibid., 702.

  29. 29.

    In theory, intensive remedial instruction is supposed to bridge the gap between the top and the bottom. But not every theory works out in reality. The educational experience at elite institutions is meant to be a full-time job and then some. With only twenty-four hours in a day, something has to give. Every hour a minority student spends in a remedial classroom, sometimes struggling to stay on top of material other students are having less trouble with, is an hour other students can spend getting a deeper understanding of that material. The game of catch-up is thus never-ending.

  30. 30.

    Elizabeth Culotta, “Black Colleges Cultivate Scientists,” Science 258, issue 5085 (November 13, 1992), 1216.

  31. 31.

    The Elliott team members were particularly impressed that HBCUs are able to graduate large numbers of students in science and engineering despite entering credentials that were significantly lower than those ordinarily found at elite institutions. Students at Xavier University, for example, were reported to have SAT Math scores averaging around 400, yet half of the class was majoring in science. If elite schools could do the same with minority students (or with students in the bottom third of the class generally), it would be astonishing. In fact they do the opposite. They are able to award far fewer science or engineering degrees to African Americans than one would expect given the number of African American students in their classes. Elliott et al., “The Role of Ethnicity,” 700.

  32. 32.

    Culotta, “Black Colleges Cultivate Scientists,” 1218.

  33. 33.

    Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).

  34. 34.

    Althea K. Nagai, “Racial and Ethnic Preferences in Undergraduate Admission at the University of Michigan,” Center for Equal Opportunity,” October 16, 2006, http://www.ceousa.org/content/view/521/100/. See also Fisher v. University of Texas, 645 F. Supp. 2d 587 (W.D. Tex. 2009).

  35. 35.

    See Russell K. Nieli, “The Changing Shape of the River: Affirmative Action and Recent Social Science Research,” Academic Questions 17, no. 4 (Fall 2004): 7.

  36. 36.

    Stephen Cole and Elinor Barber, Increasing Faculty Diversity: The Occupational Choices of High Achieving Minority Students (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 124, 212.

  37. 37.

    Robin Wilson, “The Unintended Consequences of Affirmative Action,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 31, 2003, 10.

  38. 38.


  39. 39.

    Smyth and McArdle, “Ethnic and Gender Differences,” 373.

  40. 40.


  41. 41.

    Ibid., 353.

  42. 42.

    Sander and Bolus, “Credentials Gaps in College.”

  43. 43.

    Ibid., 14–20.

  44. 44.

    Ibid., 20–23.

  45. 45.

    Ibid., 23–24.

  46. 46.

    The figures for law school grades are available and particularly instructive: In elite law schools, 51.6 percent of African American law students have first-year GPAs in the bottom 10 percent of their class as opposed to only 5.6 percent of white students. Nearly identical gaps exist at law schools at all levels (with the exception of historically minority schools). At mid-range public schools, the median African American student’s first-year grades corresponded to the fifth percentile among white students. For mid-range private schools it was seventh. With disappointingly few exceptions, African American students were grouped toward the bottom of their class. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, the gap in grades did not close as students continued through law school. Instead, by graduation, it had gotten wider. See Sander, “Systemic Analysis,” 367, 427–36, tables 5.1, 5.3, and 5.4. I am not aware of anyone who disputes these figures, and indeed some critics of Sander’s work appear to have conceded their accuracy. See Ian Ayres and Richard Brooks, “Does Affirmative Action Reduce the Number of Black Lawyers?” Stanford Law Review 57, no. 6 (May 2005): 1807–54: “Richard Sander’s study of affirmative action at U.S. law schools highlights a real and serious problem: the average black law student’s grades are startlingly low” (1807).

  47. 47.

    Bowen and Bok, Shape of the River, 72.

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Correspondence to Gail Heriot.

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Heriot, G. Just Say No to Affirmative Action. Acad. Quest. 24, 449–466 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12129-011-9257-4

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  • Affirmative Action
  • Minority Student
  • Elite Institution
  • Academic Credential
  • Elite School