Saturday, December 03, 2011

"Trust Me - I'm Denying You This Great Opportunity For Your Own Good"

I stopped following George Will many years ago when, frankly, his columns became tiresome retreads, so I didn't even notice that Will had jumped onto the "Affirmative Action Harms Minorities" bandwagon until I read about his column at the Volokh Conspiracy, a site that has previously attempted to make the same argument; I have previously commented on similar arguments (c.f. Volokh Conspiracy comments on India's caste system). To me, the sentiment behind Will's columns often come across as a version of the proverbial cranky old man yelling, "Hey you kids, get off my lawn." His column on affirmative action seems to reflect that the wrong kids are allowed to place their unworthy feet on the lawns of elite universities.

Will starts by talking bout "academic mismatch", the notion that minority students end up in colleges that are too demanding for their meager little brains, and thus get worse grades or drop out, whereas had they gone to less challenging schools they would have flourished. I find the arguments of mismatch to be weak, first (as I indicated in the blog post I linked above) because to the extent that a mismatch exists it could easily be one of subject matter as opposed to aptitude. A lot of students go to law school because they believe it is the path to a well-paid career, not because they have received any advice about whether law school is a good academic match for their interests and aptitude, and many have little concept of what a lawyer does beyond depictions on TV, in movies and in novels.

But let's step back for a minute. Let's say that George Will is correct - that there would be no greater favor to a typical minority student than being bumped down into a less challenging school at which he will get better grades and ostensibly feel better about himself, and supposedly be launched on a more lucrative career path due to his presumed higher grades and higher likelihood of completion of the program. Why aren't top students, across the board, being told, "Set your sights a little bit lower - going to a less challenging college will help you in the long run"? Why are students who complain, "If minorities didn't benefit from affirmative action, I would be in a better school," grateful for their higher GPA's and expanded economic horizons? Why are graduates of elite institutions obsessed with preserving preferential admission for legacies, rather than encouraging their kids to attend schools better matched to their talents? Why aren't those making this argument also arguing that college sports scholarship should never be given to students who would not qualify for regular admission to the same school?

Enrollment in college is in no small part about branding. If you have an Ivy League college attached to your résumé, it opens doors that might otherwise remain closed. Many people (like Will) assume by the name of a college or its ranking that the curriculum must be more challenging, but that's often not the case. Even within a college, some degree programs are much easier than others, but having the . No matter how brilliant you are, if you want to be on the Supreme Court, you had best attend Harvard or Yale. The impact of branding is most pronounced with elite schools, but carries on down the line through less elite and regional schools.

Do those who sneer that President Obama is secretly dumb, a beneficiary of affirmative action, believe that he would be doing even better had he not attended Harvard Law? ("If only he had been allowed to excel at a mid-tier law school, he might be President of the Universe.") By the same token, do they contend that G.W. Bush, whose admissions to Harvard and Yale had nothing to do with academic preparedness or performance, did not benefit from that branding?

Since we're talking about the Supreme Court here, and the type of information it should use as a basis for its opinions, it seems reasonable to look at other cases. Here, for example, is a criticism of the substitution of sociology for law in Brown vs. Board of Education:
The court waxed sociological, citing such data as the preference of some black children for white dolls, which may have been related to school segregation. And the court cited studies - studies more problematic than the court assumed - concerning the effects of segregation on children's abilities to learn. By resting the ruling on theories of early childhood development, the court's rationale limited the anti-discrimination principle of the ruling to primary and secondary education.

As Robert Bork has written, making the ruling contingent on sociological findings "cheapened a great moment in constitutional law."The proper, more radical rational for the Brown outcome was simply that government should not use racial classifications in making decisions.
As you've guessed, that argument was made by George Will who, although claiming that the court reached the "correct constitutional outcome" laments that the ruling allowed for more than judicially enforced equality of access, and opened the door for direct efforts (i.e., "affirmative action") to end segregation and discrimination. Let's work with the premise that constitutional cases should be decided based upon the law and constitution, and that social science should be held at arm's length (or further). That was then, this is now?
The details of the Texas policies are less important than what social science says about the likely consequences of such policies.
Apparently, when it comes to ending affirmative action, we have a moral imperative to employ weak social science to cheapen a great moment in constitutional law.

Consider, for example, the touchy-feely arguments of the Heriot/Kirsanow/Gaziano brief,
These so-called affirmative action beneficiaries are not bad students. Many would be honor students elsewhere. But they are subtly being made to feel as if they are less talented than they really are. Many may actually be learning less. Everyone knows that a good student can get in over his head if placed in a classroom with more academically prepared students. (The Commissioner Amici, who are all lawyers, have little doubt, for example, that they would learn less in a physics class at Cal Tech, which specializes in training the best-prepared science students, than they would at a university with less formidable competition.)
It has often been argued that the social science research referenced in Brown was incomplete and misleading; but the first argument of the brief Will relies upon is nothing but speculation and projection. The brief's third and fourth arguments are framed as speculation - judgment based on appearances - "Race-Preferential Admissions Appear to Have the Effect of Discouraging Minority Students from Becoming College Professors" and "Race-Preferential Admissions Appear to Have the Effect of Decreasing the Number of Minority Law Students Who Graduate and Pass the Bar." I was not aware that the nation was facing either a shortage of people qualified to teach college courses and, unless the authors are concerned about a lack of racial diversity among college professors, I'm not sure what they are concerned about. Certainly not pay, given what a typical college professor earns.

The fifth argument, which attempts to argue that graduating from better colleges does not boost lifetime income, goes right back to speculation:
One cannot assume that a student with a combined SAT score of 1200 at Princeton is the equivalent of a student with the same score at Pennsylvania State. There is an excellent chance that the first student has a substantially better high school GPA or other distinctions in his favor. That is why he is at Princeton, not Pennsylvania State.
So he's not there because of affirmative action - he's there because he's better qualified? Gotta love the internal consistency....
Comparing students with the same SAT scores and finding that the student at the more elite school has higher post-graduation earnings, even though he appears to be mismatched at the more elite school, is a false comparison. It is overwhelmingly likely that the student attending the more elite school has a more elite high school record too.
So again, the students at the more elite school do benefit from their enrollment at those institutions, and should be assumed to be academically qualified for those programs, unless we're not comparing them to students in other colleges or talking about law school students, in which case they're going to struggle and fail due to affirmative action. Why am I still not quite convinced.
The only question is whether a black student who attends a Tier-1 school and winds up in the bottom third of the class would have likely been in the top third of a Tier-3 school. And the answer to that question, at least in many cases, is yes.
But if the assumption holds, the same is true of any student. By definition there will always be a "bottom third of the class" at any given university. Why is it okay when they're attending as legacies or on sports scholarships, or just happen to perform at a level below the majority of their peers, but a horror if their skin is of a certain shade? Also, if we are to rely upon the assumption that students who attend more elite schools and study subjects such as law or business would be studying engineering or the physical sciences but for their admission into the elite schools, we could be creating the academic mismatch the authors purport that they want to avoid. My stepfather holds a Ph.D. in physics, became a CMA (equivalent of a CPA) in his spare time, has taught college-level physics and calculus, has read the entire Scientific American library cover-to-cover for relaxation, and he has expressed that he "couldn't do" my work as a lawyer. He could - but what he means is that he would find it to be a mismatch with his aptitude and interests, as would I had I chosen to pursue a Ph.D. in physics instead of a law degree.

The brief's second argument is premised upon social science data, speculating that affirmative action caused minority students to select fields of study other than the natural sciences and engineering. (Yes, it appears that the three lawyers who authored the brief, and who apparently weren't sufficiently inspired by science to take even an basic physics course in college, and George "Don't know much about science book" Will, find this to be a genuine problem. So how's this for a kick in the seat of their collective pants - they haven't even impressed Steve Sailer.
Say I'm a black high school student with a 700 SAT math score and my options are:

1) Without affirmative action, go to Purdue and become an engineer.

2) With affirmative action, go to Penn, major in economics or finance, maybe get an MBA, and go into corporate management

Why would I choose what's behind door #1? My dad was an engineer. A friend of his designed the fastest airplane of all time. But, he was never that kind of genius, so he spent 40 years worrying about whether or not the wings were going to snap off the planes designed by the geniuses.

There are a lot of worse jobs than engineer, but there are better jobs, too.
It apparently has not occurred to the lawyers who authored the report that there actually are students other than themselves who view such "soft" subjects as law as a superior career choices to engineering or chemistry or becoming a professor.

The other brief relied upon by Will is similarly explicit in its reliance upon social science. The authors summarize their argument as follows:
Many of the issues involved in judicial oversight of racial affirmative action in university admissions turn on empirical questions that can be better understood through social science research. This brief identifies important findings in recent research that suggest that the Court’s decision in Grutter, and indeed affirmative action practices in general, are not having their intended effects.
The authors also speculate that admissions based upon SES would enhance diversity more efficiently than race-based affirmative action, but they fail to explain why they believe that to be the case; if they're taking the position that universities should attempt to enroll a diverse student body, they should make their case that socioeconomic diversity would result in "more intellectual and viewpoint 'diversity'", even as the student body becomes more racially homogeneous. So again we're being told, "Ignore the facts, ignore the law, and decide the case based upon our interpretation of social science." An approach we're told is bad and illegitimate if it means creating or expanding affirmative action programs, but superior to consideration of the facts or law if it can be used to argue against them.

The social science arguments advanced by Will not only seem speculative, they seem constrained by a tunnel vision - take tidbits of social science research, speculate about how it might harm minorities, and close the book. There's more to the picture than speculation about the career paths of college students who attend less renowned institutions, and the speculation that they might become scientists and engineers, or projections of lifetime earnings. College educated students are more likely to obtain and hold white collar jobs, socialize with educated peers, and have kids who go to college. In my experience that's true even if they are poor.

It would be interesting to learn how the numbers hold when you look at African American women, rather than African Americans in general. Given that women have a significantly higher college completion rate than men, I expect that the outcome analysis would be quite different. It would also be interesting to hear it explained why some colleges claim that their African American students fare as well as any other group if the problem truly is somehow connected to the color of one's skin. Interestingly,
African-American students in engineering and the hard sciences have lower retention and graduation rates than those in the social sciences and arts, but this is true for all ethnic groups.
So maybe there's not much to that notion of keeping African American students out of elite schools so they can become scientists and engineers, after all....

I wrote back in 2006,
Affirmative action, at least as presently defined, has to end sometime - that is, at some point you have to recognize that it has passed its point of effectiveness or, if it is effective, that it is no longer necessary. I personally believe that many (perhaps most) affirmative action programs are deeply flawed as administered. Funny, though, I can't recall the last time I saw an opponent of affirmative action make a cogent case against the need for affirmative action, or even the manner of its administration. I can't recall the last time I heard an opponent argue for reform and improvement as opposed to abolition. To the extent that a plausible case can be made that affirmative action is no longer helping to achieve progress for targeted groups, I don't recall hearing that argued, either.
The only thing that has changed since that time is that George Will and friends are arguing that some minority students are harmed by affirmative action. I can't help but feel that they state their case badly, but I guess it's all they have.

1 comment:

  1. "Why are students who complain, "If minorities didn't benefit from affirmative action, I would be in a better school," grateful for their higher GPA's and expanded economic horizons?"

    As I understand the argument, if you have light-complected skin you rise to the challenge.

    "Why are graduates of elite institutions obsessed with preserving preferential admission for legacies, rather than encouraging their kids to attend schools better matched to their talents?"

    Because being born rich is a talent.

    "Why aren't those making this argument also arguing that college sports scholarship should never be given to students who would not qualify for regular admission to the same school?"

    That's, um, completely different.


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