Wednesday, December 08, 2004

No Such Thing as a Good Theory That Doesn’t Work in Practice

By Jeff Guinn

NPR’s Morning Edition of 6 December, UCLA Law Professor Richard Sander got a chance to explain his controversial paper A Systemic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools, which had the temerity to suggest that allowing people into situations for which they aren’t qualified is very likely to lead to some not very good things. The paper itself is quite lengthy, but the summary makes the case pretty clearly:

Despite the prevalence of affirmative action policies in higher education, scholars are only beginning to study seriously the relative costs and benefits of racial preferences in admissions. The recent development of several large, longitudinal datasets on law students and lawyers has made it possible to ask more ambitious questions about the operation and effects of these policies. A Systemic Analysis asks a number of these questions, and reports surprising answers. (This article focuses only on blacks and whites.)

--First, the levels of racial preferences at American law schools are very large and remarkably homogenous across institutions, operating in ways that are generally hard to distinguish from racially segregated admissions.

--Second, black students admitted through preferences generally have quite low grades in law school – not because of any racial characteristic, but because the preferences themselves put them at an enormous academic disadvantage. The median black student starting law school in 1991 received first-year grades comparable to a white student at the 7 th or 8 th percentile.

--Third, these low grades substantially handicap black students in their efforts to complete law school and pass the bar. Only 45% of black law students in the 1991 cohort completed law school and passed the bar on their first attempt; in the absence of preferential admissions, I estimate that this rate would rise to 74%.

--Fourth, the job market benefits of attending an elite school have been substantially overrated; regression analysis of job market data strongly suggests that most black lawyers entering the job market would have higher earnings in the absence of preferential admissions, because better grades would generally trump the costs in prestige.

--Fifth, it is far from clear that racial preferences actually cause the legal education system to produce a larger number of black lawyers. Careful analysis indicates that 86% of blacks currently enrolled in law schools would have been admitted to some law school under race-blind policies, and the much lower attrition rates that would prevail in a race-blind regime would probably produce larger cohorts of black lawyers than the current system of preferences produces.

In the case of blacks, at least, the objective costs of preferential admissions appear to substantially outweigh the benefits. The basic theory driving many of these findings is known as the “academic mismatch” mechanism; attending an advanced school where one’s credentials are far below those of one’s peers has a variety of negative effects on learning, motivation, and goals that harm the beneficiary of the preference. Over the past several years, a wide range of scholars have documented the operation of the mismatch mechanism in a number of fields of higher education.

Now all of this seems straightforward enough, and a facet of affirmative action that would given even the most committed proponents pause.

Apparently, though, it isn’t. The opposite point of view came from Harvard Law Professor. The jaw dropping moment came when said professor maintained that there is “no statistically significant correlation between ... undergraduate GPA, LSAT and law school results".

Admissions, did you get the memo? You are out of a job.

People can debate the merits of group identity vs. individual merit, or moral hazard vs. making up for past injustices, or whether the concept of racial diversity is itself racist, but using Dr. Sanders paper highlights the problem with liberalism: solutions that make you feel good often don’t have anything to do with the problem. College admissions boards are not racist hot beds to be brought to heel; they aren’t the problem, the solution doesn’t lie with them. But pretending it does takes some pressure off the criminally inadequate schools afflicting so many African Americans.


Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Bravo, Jeff. It's great that Robert's blog is being graced by such and informed and analytical mind. The fact that it is wrong so often is quite secondary. :-)

I do note that you and Robert are emphasizing quality over quantity. As I can't keep up with Orrin without risking my health, I empathise. But don't let it become an excuse for sloth, now. You don't want to lose the battle with the theists simply because they outran you.

All the best and good luck. I expect you two will also be managing 250 comment posts in about a year. There will be a very good reason for that.

December 12, 2004 3:06 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Thanks for those very kind words.

You need to be more solicitous of those who are so often--well, it isn't the word I would use--wrong.

After all, nothing like a few heretics to keep up the rate of fire, is there?

December 14, 2004 5:04 PM  

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