The Great Mismatch

The painful truth about hand-wringing over whether Affirmative Action “harms” racial minorities is that no one cares if Affirmative Action harms racial minorities. The faux concern for the well-being of poor put-upon non-white students who are promoted beyond their ability never extends to concern for the many more white students who are surely promoted beyond theirs. At the same time we have debates about whether any student learns anything in college anymore (see: Academically Adrift), we also debate if there is too much learning happening for poor non-white students. And we care about that only as it is politically convenient to defend the legacy preferences, white preferences, athlete preferences and donor preferences at colleges and universities. With friends like this, as the saying goes, non-white students don’t need enemies.


This is liberal concern-trolling of the type, tenor and intensity that makes social media trolling seem quaint by comparison. The argument goes that black students’ self-efficacy is damaged when they have to compete with better-prepared white students at rigorous universities. These students persist and feel better when they are at a university that is calibrated to their level of ability. Even if we accept that someone actually cares that black students’ feelings are hurt (and I would argue vehemently that very few people making this argument actually care), the reasoning is usually fallacious, from circular logic to selection issues. The most common fallacy here is selecting on the dependent variable. The other fallacy is arguing that grades are objective, standardized measures and not subjective, non-standard measures. But all of that is perhaps beside the point. Douglas Massey, Camille Charles, Garvey Lundy and Mary Fischer tackle this well in “The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities”. Alon and Tienda also have work here in the Sociology of Education.


It is true that black and hispanic students report lower levels of satisfaction and belonging at PWIs. That can certainly condition one’s academic performance. It is also true that poorer black and hispanic students are likely to have different levels of academic preparation that can be a “mismatch” for the assumed curriculum exposure embedded in college curricula (with that skewing towards elite universities and away from say open access community colleges). None of these things are about being black or hispanic. It is true for many students and seems to be becoming more true for more students as stratification within and between k-12 schools persists. Black and hispanic students don’t like racist communities and many of these universities are racist. But, non-elite students also tend to not like classist communities and many of these universities are classist. Ask some working class students about how their mismatch impacts their academic performance some time (or read some of that research).


But, of course, the issue here is one about race. It isn’t an issue of race because there is anything inherently flawed with racialized people but because there is something inherently flawed with white supremacy. That’s what affirmative action was about and what it continues to be about. Can you design an integrated social, economic, cultural, and institutional system of privilege that delimits access to colleges and universities as a normal course of business and be not-for-profit, state-supported, and culturally legitimate? Because that’s what U.S. higher education did and what it continues to do. Whether black or hispanic students do not like the culture, drop out, transfer, get an F in freshman comp is not the issue. The issue is not individual performance but institutional exclusion. Of course, these universities could agree that the mismatch is just too great to bear. They could concede that the greatest universities in the world are just too fragile for a few thousand or so non-white, non-legacy students to exist on the yard. It may be the case that for all of our collective brilliance and innovation we simply cannot overcome the compound effects of white racism and residential segregation and educational stratification. In which case, put these institutions out of their misery and turn off public funding for them and to them. The mismatch between what they are and what a just, diverse, and ethical society needs may well be too great.

8 thoughts on “The Great Mismatch

  1. We can’t do nothing about race/class disparities in access to education resources. Those who oppose affirmative action on abstract grounds of fairness refuse to look at the concrete, not abstract at all, unfairness of what goes on. That said, how do we design a system that allocates a scarce resource (close academic contact with bright people) justly? More funds would help, but the best and brightest teachers can still only teach well if they teach limited numbers—who gets to sit close and why?

    1. There are different perspectives on this, Peter. I tend to believe that the best way to allocate that resource is to deflate its value. That seems counterintuitive but if the issue is that there is too much demand for elite socialization because there are so few paths to mobility or quality standard of living, providing more avenues to the latter would protect the *choice* of the former. I remain unconvinced that there is a genuine demand for the cloistered academic halls of a half dozen universities and that is more likely that competition for fewer guarantees for a stable life make those dozen of so universities seem like a golden ticket. That’s true for all categorical groups, of course. I also think that investing in mass higher education and K-12 could alleviate some of this. There’s no law that says only the “best and brightest” can have limited numbers of students, for example. We can make that more true at more institutions. But it is true that there is no such thing as universal higher education and maybe there shouldn’t have to be.

  2. Worthy of your time, from the Nation Magazine On Line:

    The last sentence in the article: “In this respect, one must recognize [Abigail] Fisher’s unworthy-minority-applicant rhetoric as belonging to a broader set of racial biases that not only attack the material opportunities for people of color, but also take aim at our minds, bodies, and souls.”

    And, yes, I will say it. Ms. Fisher does look like Peanuts’ “Peppermint Patty”.

    No insult intended to Ms. Patty.

  3. Preach it. And any faculty member at a state flagship university has surely taught 10x as many underprepared white students as they have taught black students of all levels of prep. Social class has way more to do with preparation for elite schools, and in my close to 40 years of teaching, I have seen this gap grow (and the number of black students shrink). And my excellent B;ack grad students got their training at those competitive state flagships that our Supreme Court would be happy to see them excluded from (nearly all who go Ivy undergrad go Ivy for grad school too in my experience). So public higher ed should be in the business of building this pipeline rather than squeezing Black students out with phony solicitude. Aaargh.

  4. All 100% vitally important points, of course, but out here in non-elite-land, I think it is also worth pointing out that one of the main reason students experiencing various forms of disadvantage and oppression have higher graduation rates and other beneficial outcomes at many elite institutions despite the exclusionary and oppressive environments in which they spend their college years is because those elite institutions have the financial and other resources to support robust financial aid and student support services not available at under-resourced public comprehensive colleges. That doesn’t actually make us “less competitive” or “easier”–sometimes, we push our students harder and make them learn MORE–but it means we have a much tougher time providing students of all backgrounds with the support needed to encourage on-time graduation and academic success.

    Affirmative action is an important policy for those students who have been and continue to be lucky to benefit from it. But if you really want to help Black, Latinx, poor, working-class, and first-generation students? Fund the public comprehensive colleges. For that matter, fund the K-12 schools, too.

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