Part 4—In theory, mismatch happens: Is the University of Texas making bad judgments concerning freshman admissions?
Aside from that, is the school doing something that's unconstitutional?
In theory, those are separate questions. In theory, the Supreme Court is considering the second question, especially concerning the use of race in admission decisions.
If memory serves, race is considered a "suspect category" under prevailing constitutional frameworks. For that reason, the use of race must survive "strict scrutiny" if challenged in court.
Or something! We haven't seen many legal explanations in the week since this complex matter got hot and went viral again. Nor have we seen many attempts to describe the actual lives of the actual students involved in these decisions.
What we've seen is the usual screeching displays, with members of our warring tribes yelling names at each other. All in all, we don't seem to hugely care about the school lives of actual kids. We do seem to hugely care about our tribal warfare.
Is Texas doing something wrong in its admission procedures? In the past week, the discourse has focused on a specific question: In an attempt to increase black enrollment, is the prestigious flagship campus admitting black freshmen who are destined to flounder or fail?
Because real students are involved, that's an important question. We'll start with two basic points:
First, to whatever extent UT-Austin is practicing race-based "affirmative action," it hasn't exactly been flooding the campus with black kids. According to this official "Student Profile," the student body at Texas was 4% black last year.
That seems to refer to freshmen only, although, in best bureaucratic fashion, it's a bit hard to tell. At any rate, four percent is not a giant figure, student enrollment-wise.
We'll add a second point. Presumably, it's perfectly possible to admit freshmen—black, white or brown—who may be likely to struggle, flounder, suffer and/or fail. Are you running a "selective" university? If you are, presumably you could admit students where academic "mismatch" occurs.
Absolutely everyone agrees that this can happen in theory. In yesterday's New York Times, a former president of Princeton said this rarely happens. But even William Bowen agrees that it could occur:
BOWEN (12/15/15): To be sure, admissions officers could, hypothetically, admit minority students with no real chance of success at the selective institutions in question, but the great bulk of evidence shows that they have not done so. On the contrary, minority students admitted as undergraduates to selective institutions consistently graduate at higher rates than do peers with similar qualifications who attend less-demanding institutions. And available evidence indicates that the great majority of beneficiaries of affirmative action go on to enjoy successful careers and live lives enriched by civic contributions.According to President Bowen, academic "mismatches" could occur, but admissions officers have been careful not to let this happen.
Warning! President Bowen has played a leading role in this debate since the 1990s. That said, his research has been challenged by other academics. Because this is a complex matter which has become highly partisan, it presumably wouldn't be easy to determine who is more right.
Today, we'll make a key addition to President Bowen's language. Presumably, admissions officers could admit plenty of white students "with no real chance of success at those selective institutions in question" too. The vast majority of college students—white, black and brown—do not attend our most "selective" schools. If black kids can be thrown in over their heads, it can happen to white kids too.
Bowen says that isn't happening, at least not on a serious scale. We don't know if that's accurate. At any rate, UT-Austin is more "selective" than most American universities. Presumably, a lot of students—white, black and brown—might experience academic difficulties there.
That doesn't mean that students like that have to crawl on the junkheap and die. In the language of last week's Supreme Court hearing, it doesn't mean they have to attend some "inferior school."
(As we'll note again tomorrow, that infelicitous phrase was used by UT's chief counsel, not by one of the Justices.)
How "selective" can it get at major state universities? Let's consider the California example, where some freshmen enroll at the Berkeley campus and others enroll at San Jose State, roughly thirty miles away.
According to this official profile, average SAT scores at Berkeley approach 2100 out of a possible 2400. Across the bridge and down the road, average scores at SJS seem to be more like 1550.
Presumably, the are plenty of kids at San Jose State who might imaginably face an academic struggle at Berkeley. But guess what? This country is full of superlative people who went to San Jose State.
(It's also full of overrated louts who went to Stanford or Yale. Just turn on your TV some night!)
Regarding great people from San Jose State, our high school basketball coach, Name Withheld, was and is one such person. (He graduated as the third leading scorer in San Jose State history.) In a somewhat similar vein, a fellow named Lyndon Johnson graduated from Southwest Texas State.
Today, the school is known at Texas State. It's one of the campuses Texas kids attend in lieu of the more selective UT-Austin.
Should our public university systems have "selective" campuses at all? Is that the best way to play? It's done that way all over the world, at the college level and in high school, in places where race is a factor and in settings where all the students are of the same "race."
That said, does it make sense to sort freshmen this way? We'll leave that tempting discussion to the ideologues.
For today, let's consider some things that can imaginably happen to actual college students, given the way our public university systems are currently arranged. For our guide, we'll select John McWhorter. He actually spoke about actual kids in a recent piece on this topic.
McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia. He wrote his piece for CNN. Regarding the greatness of our admission committees, he doesn't seem inclined to agree with President Bowen.
Does "affirmative action" sometimes result in academic mismatches—mismatches which poorly serve the black students involved? McWhorter seems to think so. He starts with some theoretics, built around academic procedure at his own Ivy League school:
MCWHORTER (12/13/15): Black and Latino students are often less prepared for the pace of teaching at tippy-top schools because of the societal factors that dismay us all: quality of schooling, parents denied good education themselves, complex home lives. The question is: Do we respond to this by nonetheless placing students in schools teaching beyond what they are prepared? The data suggest this harms more than it helps, and that is not a racist observation in the least.Again, McWhorter imagines black and Hispanic kids who aren't ready for the fast pace, and the faking, he describes at Columbia. Again, we'll note an important point. Presumably, there would be tons of white high school graduates who would be challenged by that pace too.
An example: Plato's "Republic" runs about 300 pages. At Columbia, we assign it to every sophomore as the first reading of the year. They are expected to have been able to get through it, to discuss it for two or three two-hour classes, and refer to it in a paper or two after that.
Imagine being a student who is quite bright but is from a home without many books in it. He isn't the fastest reader in the world, and his schools didn't expose him to much discussion of ideas as opposed to facts. All of a sudden, he's in a classroom where students marinated since toddlerhood in books and top-quality education are confidently discussing this book, blithely tossing off concepts he's rarely heard of, all doing a fine job of at least faking having gotten through all 300 pages.
Everyone can be thrown in over his or her head in some academic setting! Somewhere or other, in some setting, President Bowen's hypothetical could presumably happen to anyone, not just to black college kids.
Has this sometimes happened to black kids because of affirmative action? Presumably, the answer is yes, at least in limited cases. Every system breaks down at some point.
McWhorter, though, seems to think that a substantial problem is involved. He gives an example from the California system:
MCWHORTER: [H]ere's what happens on the ground. At the University of California, San Diego the year before racial preferences were banned in the late '90s, exactly one black student out of 3,268 freshmen made honors. A few years later after students who once would have been "mismatched" to flagship schools UC Berkeley were now admitted to schools such as UC San Diego, one in five black freshmen were making honors, the same proportion as white ones.Uh-oh! At least on the surface, McWhorter has slid past the point. He pictures black freshmen at UC-San Diego making the honor roll. Previously, under the affirmative action regime, they would have been at Berkeley or UCLA.
It does seem that the termination of affirmative action strengthened the black freshman class at UC-San Diego. But none of this shows that those same black freshmen couldn't have made the honor roll at Berkeley too, just as they did at UCSD! McWhorter thought he had made his point, but he still had a ways to go.
Alas! It isn't easy to nail down the ultimate answers in a complex, tribalized matter like this. If you want to drive yourself crazy, McWhorter links to a lengthy paper by Gail Heriot, a law professor and a member of the civil rights commission, who challenges Bowen's past research.
These questions all bubbled up, of course, because of Justice Scalia's comment last week, which was instantly famous. His comment last week, during the UT Supreme Court hearing, touched off the latest battle in our endless name-calling wars.
We love to fight those tribal wars! We spend less time discussing the actual school lives of actual American kids. Even with affirmative action, why is the Texas freshman class still only 4% black? What can we do to improve the world from which that low number flows?
Those questions involve the real school lives of actual Texas kids. In our view, the questions get discussed extremely poorly, to the extent that they get discussed at all.
We care about our tribal wars; nothing could be more obvious. Do we care about the school lives of our many good decent kids?
Tomorrow: Scalia v. Sharpton