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Affirmative Action Bred 50 Years of ‘Mismatch’

Hey, who are you calling an intellectual snob! I deeply resent being labeled one type of snob or the other.

Affirmative Action Bred 50 Years of ‘Mismatch’ Thinking elite schools are the only path to success for students is a form of intellectual snobbery.

By Heather Mac Donald, WSJ Updated July 10, 2023 2:50 pm ET Justice Sonia Sotomayor had harsh words for her colleagues who voted last month to bar the use of race in college admissions. She alleged in her dissenting opinion that the six-justice majority in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard had subverted the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law, not upheld it, by “further entrenching racial inequality in education.” Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion slammed shut the door of opportunity to underrepresented minorities, especially black students, who still fight against a society that is “inherently unequal,” she wrote. Many in academia agreed with Justice Sotomayor. Incoming Harvard president Claudine Gay warned in a video statement that the decision “means the real possibility that opportunities will be foreclosed.” David A. Thomas, president of historically black Morehouse College, asserted that in the absence of racial preferences, black students will rightly conclude that they are “not wanted.” Students “of color” may not feel that they “matter,” according to Angel B. Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The charge that colorblind admissions will foreclose educational opportunities for blacks rests on a breathtakingly elitist view of education. And the idea that minority students should now conclude that they aren’t “wanted” on college campuses defies reality. Black students will attend college in the same numbers after affirmative action as they did before, if they so choose. Colleges will be as eager to have them. The only difference, assuming compliance with the ruling (a big if), is that such students will attend college on the same footing as most students from unpreferred racial groups: admitted to schools for which their academic skills qualify them.

Racial preferences catapulted many minority students into colleges for which they were academically unprepared. As Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. demonstrated in “Mismatch,” their 2012 book on affirmative action, there are very few black students in the top academic cohorts from which highly selective colleges draw most of their students. Black high-school seniors are one-tenth as likely to be in the top tenth of college applicants nationwide as nonblack applicants. The average black SAT score in 2022 was 926 on a 1600 point scale. The average Asian score was 1229 and the average white score was 1098. Activists have for decades scoured standardized tests for questions that might presume race-specific cultural knowledge; any references to regattas, say, if they ever existed, have long since been eliminated. The College Board has also eliminated questions with too-wide a racial variance in correct answers.

Because elite colleges are determined to engineer racially diverse student bodies, they have reached deep down into the black applicant pool to fill their quotas. They end up admitting black students who, in a world without affirmative action, would attend less selective but perfectly respectable schools. Harvard’s own research in 2013 showed that the black share of its undergraduate population would drop from 10% to less than 1% if it admitted students according to academic skills only. Harvard has the pick of the black U.S. high-school population, but even it can’t fill its desired quota without double standards. At each lower tier of academic selectivity, colleges dip deeper into the black applicant pool to try to fill their quotas in what Messrs. Sander and Taylor call the “cascade effect.” The result isn’t a benefit to these students but a burden. Research shows they are more likely to end up in the bottom of their classes, if not to drop out of college and professional education entirely. This academic mismatch doesn’t dispel racial stereotypes; it reinforces them.

In a post-preference world, more black students, not fewer, will graduate in STEM fields since aspiring black STEM majors will attend schools where the teaching is pitched to their level of academic preparedness.

The reconfiguration of the black college population would signify the destruction of educational opportunity only if elite colleges alone provide the potential for upward mobility. But if it is so aspiration-crushing for a black or Latino student to attend a third- or fourth-tier college, why should any student suffer so dire a fate? Lower-tiered schools should be shut down so that all students can go to the highly selective universities that offer (we are to understand) the only route to life success.

Major corporations deploy a similar snobbery. More than 70 of them—including Accenture, American Airlines, American Express, Bain & Co., General Dynamics, General Motors and PayPal—joined a friend-of-the-court brief to uphold racial preferences so that they can maintain a “diverse” workforce. But they could recruit the same black students no matter where those students went to college. Admittedly, those companies would have to broaden their recruiting itinerary to venues that may offend their elitist sensibilities. The mystery is why the thousands of colleges and universities that preference supporters deem beneath consideration haven’t stood up for themselves. They should let the world know that they are as capable of educating future leaders as Harvard and Yale are.

Nearly 50 years of pro-preference rhetoric have convinced many black students that being rejected from a school because of low test scores is the same as being rejected because of race. That rhetoric persuaded some that they face a hostile educational environment, when the truth is the opposite: Every college in the country was desperate to enroll them and still is.

The majority ruling doesn’t deny “equal educational opportunity,” as Justice Sotomayor asserts. It returns equal opportunity to its true meaning: the possibility of going as far as your effort and accomplishments can take you. Ms. Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “When Race Trumps Merit.”

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