College Guide


November 01, 2012 3:10 PM A Harvard Man’s Critique of Affirmative Action

By Michael Kinsley

Stuart Taylor Jr. was in my law school class. Or, more accurately, I was in his law school class, since he graduated at the top of the class and I graduated.

Now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Taylor has co-written, with Richard H. Sander, a professor of law at UCLA, an influential book highly critical of affirmative action. I am hesitant to write about it, first, because he is a friend (who I’d like to keep), and second, because the book is intimidating, both in its statistics and in its evident good will. But the book has gotten nothing but positive reviews. So I proceed in the commercial hope of stirring controversy and thereby increasing sales.

The book is called “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It.” The thesis (and I hope this summary is fair) is not totally unfamiliar: Affirmative action results in blacks (and, to a lesser extent, Latinos) being admitted to colleges and graduate schools where most of the students are better qualified. The teachers aim their teaching at the median student, leaving the less-qualified students behind. Students resent the widespread assumption that they only got in because of their race, even though they share it.

Cascade Effect

All these effects feed on one another until the student drops out, flunks out or switches to an easier major. Finally, a “cascade effect” makes things even worse: Top schools accept minority students who really belong at “less competitive but still quite good schools,” leaving those lesser schools to poach from the pool of candidates for places at schools one more step down, and so on.

“The student who would flourish at, say, Wake Forest or the University of Richmond instead finds herself at Duke, where the professors are not teaching at a pace designed for her.” In sum: “There is no serious dispute that large preferences greatly undermine paths to success for blacks” in high-intellect fields like science, technology and law.

You won’t catch Sander and Taylor making the usual giveaway mistakes of people who insist that they oppose affirmative action out of concern for the minorities who benefit (or seem to) rather than the whites who lose out. They concede that this same mismatch dynamic probably applies to favoritism for alumni children and athletes, but say there isn’t enough data to prove it. They declare point-blank that racial differences in innate cognitive ability don’t exist, or at least aren’t supported by the data. They blame a variety of factors, mainly to do with home life in very early childhood, for the shortage of good minority candidates.

So are they right? I can’t prove them wrong, but I also can’t help doubting. Sander and Taylor have a model of higher education in their heads in which (to oversimplify, but not much) everybody in the U.S. can be ranked, from Stuart Taylor at No. 1 to my Aunt Sally with Alzheimer’s disease at No. 311 million, in terms of their qualifications for admission to Harvard Law School. And every law school can be ranked from Harvard or Stanford or Yale at the top to Johnny’s All-Nite Law School, Laundromat & Brew Pub at the bottom.

Both defenders and opponents of reverse discrimination imagine a similar model — the opponents saying that it’s unfair for No. 883 to get into Harvard Law School over No. 537 because 853 is African-American, and the defenders saying that if it weren’t for centuries of slavery and discrimination, No. 883 would be ahead of No. 537. You start to ask yourself why anyone “deserves” any place in the hierarchy — brains, money, connections: It’s all just luck, really.

Then along come Sander and Taylor to argue that No. 883 really belongs at Law School No. 35, will be happier there, more likely to graduate, and actually knows this in his heart.

Happier Elsewhere

Unlike prison, marriage or a cell-phone contract, a top college or law school is harder to get into than to get out of. Even if massive numbers of minority students who wouldn’t otherwise make the cut are getting into Duke, that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to hack it there, or would be happier at Wake Forest or the University of Richmond. All of Sander and Taylor’s data can’t capture the myriad reasons students apply to one place or another, find happiness or not, do their homework or not, drop out or go on to engineering school.

The idea that a minority student who can get into Harvard, by favoritism or otherwise, would actually be well-advised to turn it down in favor of, say, Ohio State — not because he thinks Ohio State is just as good or better but precisely because he thinks Ohio State is a lesser school — strains credulity. But that is the advice Sander and Taylor are giving him. Check with me before you take it, please.

Sander and Taylor are right that the current Supreme Court jurisprudence on affirmative action is a mess. The Court ruled in 2003 that explicit racial quotas are unconstitutional at public universities, but race may still be considered in admissions as part of a more “holistic” consideration of a variety of factors. What is the difference, ethically or practically, between a 10 percent quota and a “holistic” process that can be counted on to produce the same result as a 10 percent quota? Sander and Taylor show how, when California banned any use of race in admissions, the University of California managed to achieve almost the same result through creative use of holistic-type factors.

Yet Sander and Taylor very much favor affirmative action using social and economic status rather than race. This would end the absurdity of students from prosperous black families getting preference over those from poor and working-class white families. It would also be a social engineering nightmare. Who is “working class”? Does the number of siblings count? Is urban poverty worse than rural, or vice-versa? Every attempt to make a distinction would be lobbied and litigated. In the end, it would probably hurt the very people it is intended to help.


  • Roger Clegg, Ctr for Equal Opportunity on November 01, 2012 3:57 PM:

    Well, if you're not 100 percent convinced by the mismatch problem, there are plenty of other costs to using racial preferences in university admissions: It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school and encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership an untenable legal regime as America becomes an increasingly multiracial, multiethnic society and as individual Americans are themselves more and more likely to be multiracial and multiethnic (starting with our president).

  • parent010203 on November 01, 2012 5:42 PM:

    If Stuart Taylor really wants to do away with affirmative action, fine, but he should not be a hypocrite about it and pretend that preferences for any group is fair. Admissions should be on the basis of a test like the Specialized High School Admissions Test, and let the chips fall where they may. Most likely, the result will be exactly what you see in top high schools in New York City -- classes that are 70% Asian or more. That means most of the affluent white students who now get accepted to Harvard or Duke will be properly denied admission. But I suspect they will flourish at Wake Forest, where they obviously belong.

    As long as admissions criteria are being manipulated to accommodate wealthy children of alumni and other white students, who are admitted with lower SATs than Asian students, why shouldn't they accommodate racial minorities? But Taylor and other critics of affirmative action want to have their cake and eat it, too. Either use some objective standard for all students, or don't. But you don't get to have it both ways.

  • zandru on November 02, 2012 2:29 PM:

    In a commentary on the recent UTx affirmative action case, the University of New Mexico Law School noted that law schools are different from colleges in general: law schools are where nearly all of our elected officials come from.

    Thus, it behooves the administrators to strive for a balance of students with differing socio-economic backgrounds and different races. Else they will be loading the pipeline with just your traditional elite White Males and ensuring that few others will be elected to public office.

    Personally, I can't believe Mr. "Roger Clegg" has ever had ANYTHING to do with "equal opportunity."

  • Redleg on November 04, 2012 2:01 PM:

    Have you ever noticed that the people who say affirmative action is a flawed way to redress past discrimination never seem to offer better ideas on how to do so?

  • Monala on November 04, 2012 4:40 PM:

    I'm an African-American Harvard grad, so I think I'm pretty qualified (pun intended!) to speak about this topic.

    My SAT scores were about 150 points higher than the average SAT scores in my class at Harvard. And I was high school valedictorian, a National Merit Scholar, and a Presidential Scholar finalist. On paper, I was hardly an affirmative action baby.

    And yet Harvard was a struggle for me. I had attended a lower-income urban public high school, and it hadn't fully prepared me for the rigors of Harvard. I also had to work (at a job) many more hours than most of my Harvard classmates, because financial aid and scholarships didn't fully cover my college costs, and my mother couldn't afford the rest. (That's changed, btw. Harvard and many other Ivy League schools now offer full tuition for lower-income students, so hopefully today most don't have the difficulties I had back in the '80s).

    But I persevered, my grades got better, I graduated with honors and went on to get a Master's degree from Harvard as well. I'm hardly an exception; I'd need to do some searching to find specific data, but IIRC, Ivy League caliber schools have higher graduation rates for students of color than many of the less rigorous schools Sander and Taylor advocate.

    One reason is that students of color admitted to highly selective schools are highly qualified to begin with. Ivy League schools receive applications from far, far more many qualified applicants than they can ever accept. They don't turn down a qualified white student for a less qualified student of color; they don't have to, because the size of the pool of qualified applicants makes such a decision unnecessary.

    I'll address a few anti-affirmative action ideas that I think are flat-out wrong. Kinsley picked up on some of these.

    First, there's the false idea that you can determine that one specific student's acceptance = one specific student's rejection; there is no one-to-one correlation like that.

    Second, there's the idea that you can rank specific students according to some precise quantifiable scale. That's nonsense. Take two students with similar excellent grades. One has higher SAT scores; the other has more leadership roles and extracurricular activities. Which one ranks higher? Which one is more likely to succeed in college or a career?

    We know this in most areas of life: you don't pick a spouse or partner, or or hire someone to work for you based on a limited set of quantifiable traits. Instead, you look at the big picture and a variety of qualities about why this person would be a good match for you or for your organization. The same is true with college acceptances.

    Finally, one commenter above mentioned the role of diversity in the college (or graduate school) experience. Learning, especially at the post-secondary level, isn't about regurgitating what's in a textbook. It's about thinking critically, understanding different points of view, being challenged, learning how to make and defend arguments. It's much harder to be grow in this way when everyone around you has a similar background or experiences as you do. For this reason, race, socioeconomic background, gender, community of origin, etc. are important factors for higher ed institutions to take into account when making admission decisions.

  • Monala on November 04, 2012 4:47 PM:

    One more thing I want to share: I have a college reunion coming up in 2013. On Facebook, one of my college classmates began a discussion about whether or not people felt good about their Harvard experiences. I was fascinated to discover that many, many of my classmates felt the way I did; that it was a struggle to do well, and that you were alone in trying to overcome that struggle. I had always thought that my difficulties were due to my background, but now I realize that maybe that's not the case.

  • biaknabato on November 05, 2012 6:09 PM:


    No private school would ever want to be 72% Asian like Stuyvesant, aside from the racial animus that is involved, you are basically asking Harvard to close down by cutting off the financial stream from the legacy admits . Harvard is a business just like Starbucks around the corner.

  • Geo on November 13, 2012 9:11 PM:

    Affirmative Action is a needed adjustment to a flawed educational system. The actual problem is two-fold: 1) K-12 education is broken. There is a huge disparity in the quality of public education around the country due to lack of funding and low teacher salaries. Not to mention the problems with extreme teaching in private and religion-based private schools. Our K-12 schools should be standardized, well-funded and world-class; 2)Colleges are businesses when they should be extensions of K-12. College educations should be free like K-12 and the quality should be standardized. Basically education should be free, non-competitive, quality controlled and world-class. Until this happens, and it is a national disgrace that it hasn't, Affirmative Action is an imperfect, yet necessary adjustment to a severely flawed educational system.

  • Tom Mahon on November 22, 2012 3:56 AM:

    1) K-12 is already well funded. American per pupil expenditures are second only to Switzerland.
    2) Do you really want education to be standardized? Especially higher education? The problem with no child left behind was that it was too standardized and encouraged teaching to the test.