Review: 'Mismatch'

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central Library

Review: 'Mismatch'

How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help

Catalog record of MismatchThe first thing to say about this book is that it is a call to discussion and further research, not meant to be the last word on the matter. The authors say much the same about it -- they do feel the research they have shows a likelihood the problem is real, but frequently note the need for more data to be released so better studies can be done. Since there is a court case (Fisher v. Texas) recently sent by the Supreme Court back to a lower court for further deliberation, this seems like a good time for reading up on this contentious issue. 

I found this book, Mismatch, written by two strong supporters of affirmative action in the broad sense, very helpful in understanding the issues involved. For one, the difference between affirmative action and racial preference -- one is anything that helps minorities overcome obstacles to college entrance that race has placed in their way, the other is doing so by giving students an artificial boost in their academic index. That last term, also, was new to me: It is a numeric expression (from 0 to 1,000) of a combination of a student's high school grades and their college entrance scores, with a greater weight on the latter. It also is used to summarize college GPA and graduate education test scores.

The basic point of the book is that adding a lot of extra points to the academic index in order to qualify a student to enter a university where the majority of their classmates have a considerably higher academic index does such students a great disservice, because their classmates will have had better academic preparation, and the level of teaching will presuppose that.

Imagine being in a class that isn't your strong suit, but you're doing OK, then you get put into an honors class for that subject; chances are, you will struggle, be near the bottom of the class, and hate it but also question yourself and feel bad. That's what the authors say is happening to a great many students given large preference -- students who would have done very well in a less elite and demanding school.  It isn't a matter of intelligence; the data that is available show that students who go to colleges that are less selective, for which their actual scores qualify them, go on to do better at advanced education and even in their later careers than those who went to the top colleges due to racial preference.

One of the most interesting things about the whole issue is the difficulty of getting all the data needed to really see what's going on, and even to have a good discussion of it as an issue.  There is a fear of sounding as if one agrees with people who just don't care for having minorities around, or with those who don't want any help given at all. The authors do feel the right kind of help is a good thing, just not the apparently common though denied practice of inflating academic index scores. 

Certainly there are those who strongly disagree with the authors.  For more on that, the link above to Fisher vs. the University of Texas has some of the counter arguments, as does Amazon in its reviews of this book.  Still, at least I feel I understand the debate better because of this book.