Creative Destruction

October 23, 2007

Huge Numbers of Unqualified Students Attend Elite Colleges…

Filed under: Education,Race and Racism — Robert @ 2:41 am

and it isn’t who you might think. About 15% of the freshman slots at the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher education are going to students who do not meet the institutional criteria for admission – specifically, athletes and legacy admits, the bulk of whom are white.

Consistency time. I’m opposed to strong (quota-based/preferential) affirmative action. This is no better – worse, in fact, since at least preferential AA can be plausibly motivated by a desire to help people who are behind the eight-ball. Admitting unqualified students to boost a sports team or placate donors is cronyism and hypocrisy.

It’s bogus either way. If the institution is going to have standards-based admissions, then publish the standards and admit students who reach them – and nobody else. No more preferential AA – not for the “disadvantaged” sons of upper-class blacks, not for the genuinely disadvantaged in the slums, not for the talented but dim football star, not for the well-connected scion of privilege.

Admit by merit – or acknowledge that the institution is not interested in merit, and has some other agenda in mind.

A fair liberal (or conservative, for that matter) might then ask, “ok, but then how do you help the genuinely disadvantaged?”

My answer is, by providing a first-rate education to every student who wants one in the primary and secondary grades, ensuring that the disadvantaged have a shot at learning things of value and increasing their human capital. And then create scholarships for the poor – of whatever “race” – but worthy student. Not perfect, but it gets us 80% of the way there without hurting anyone at all – a Pareto optimal situation, or close to one.

(I have an old friend on a discussion list who is an absolutely devastatingly good scholar on proving that Pareto optimality never really happens, in the service of arguing against the unbridled market’s efficiency. She’s right; it almost never does. But we very often get what I’d call a “Pareto good enough” – a situation where there’s a big benefit and most people aren’t hurt by it.)

In the case of affirmative action of the preferential variety, there is a definite benefit. Though we may quarrel about the existence and magnitude of the ratchet effect, I agree with liberals that strong affirmative action does help the people it is designed to help, overall. Unfortunately the negatives to specific people are large enough, I think, to break even my relaxed standards for Pareto goodness.

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18 Comments »

  1. My answer is, by providing a first-rate education to every student who wants one in the primary and secondary grades, ensuring that the disadvantaged have a shot at learning things of value and increasing their human capital.

    Excellent ideas. Now, how much are you willing to see your taxes raised in order to fund this venture? And the necessary background goals of making sure that the children going to these schools are born healthy, have reasonably safe places to live, etc.

    Comment by Dianne — October 23, 2007 @ 11:44 am | Reply

  2. I don’t think any new taxes are required. Our schools are, by and large, quite adequately funded. Very few of the problems they face can be solved with additional money.

    Comment by Robert — October 23, 2007 @ 11:49 am | Reply

  3. Our schools are, by and large, quite adequately funded.

    Such confidence. I suppose then it is a coincidence that almost all the good schools out there are in wealthy districts with high tax revenues whereas the poorer ones are…poorer.

    Very few of the problems they face can be solved with additional money.

    Ok. So what do you suggest to solve the problem?

    Comment by Dianne — October 23, 2007 @ 4:26 pm | Reply

  4. I suppose then it is a coincidence that almost all the good schools out there are in wealthy districts with high tax revenues whereas the poorer ones are…poorer.

    Actually, almost all the good schools out there are those where teachers are in charge, parents are involved and committed, and students desire to learn. If these values come from “wealth”, then developing our national wealth would seem to be a priority. But they don’t come from wealth; wealth comes from them.

    The “we don’t have the money” argument is facially plausible, but not believable to anyone who has seen the schools in the District of Columbia, which are literally the best-funded schools in the world, and which suck ass as far as outcomes. If it was the money, DC schools would be #1 instead of #47 or wherever they are in the loser olympics.

    So what do you suggest to solve the problem?

    A cultural revolution where parents pick up the lessons learned over the past four millennia, which have been discarded by far too many people, and start parenting their kids again. That’d be a darn good start.

    Comment by Robert — October 23, 2007 @ 6:38 pm | Reply

  5. sure, money can’t solve all the world’s problems, but it sure can make things nice and sweet.

    as for the d.c. problem, they need a miracle to turn things around.

    most colleges, including private ones, are supposedly non-profit, but without money, they would not exist. if admitting athletes, however dumbwitted, generates incomes, then colleges will continue to admit dumbwitted athletes. some colleges do have a minimum gpa requirement for students to participate in sports, so that the football players know how to touch down as well as balance chemical equations, and some run tracks and major in economics and study at oxford and win watson and fullbright awards. and there is no going around admitting legacies. colleges like to boast about having gazillion generations of students attend their schools to show how loyal the students are, and it doesn’t hurt that mom and dad are paying tuition in addition to pledging alum support.

    as for the affirmative action question, not all minority students are dumbwitted and admitted for the color of their skin. i believe that appalachian whites are considered “minority” as well. at u c berkeley, asians are not a minority, and upper quotas were placed on asian admittees once upon a time.

    as for parental involvement in the toddler years, it sure doesn’t hurt to get mum and pop involved in teletubby’s schooling. problem is, not all mums and pops are college educated and read robert louis stevensen to their one-year-olds. many have to work many hours and are too tired to get involved. then there are non-speaking immigrants who cannot help their kids with homework because their formal education was lacking or undeveloped and they cannot speak let alone read english. doesn’t mean their kids are doomed. many immigrant students manage to do just fine on their own and go on to become doctors and engineers and computer programmers. an indian american just got elected governor of LA. dunno what his parents’ educational status was. since they are indian, i assume they are well-educated, since, and this is a racial bias here, and a stereotype, indians value education. lots of doctors and engineers coming out of india, and lots of u.s. telecommunications jobs, including telephone customer care people, have been outsourced to india.

    just a few things to digest…

    Comment by greywhitie — October 24, 2007 @ 9:30 am | Reply

  6. This is an ironic posting for this blog: Market forces are coming to play, and Robert’s grumpy about it.

    Most goods and services are given to the highest bidder, with ‘ner a word spoken about the merit of the person getting them. Colleges and universities purport to sell admission on some other basis, and succeed to a very large extent. But not entirely. Rather than celebrate the large success in resisting market forces, the article — and Robert — bemoan the small failure.

    Assuming you can characterize their behavior as failure. Imagine a university establishes a goal of, say, promoting an educated population. To achieve this goal the university dedicates some portion of its resources to the Primary Objective of finding promising students and educating them. It also dedicates a portion of its resources to supporting the Primary Objective. This includes conducting maintenance on the physical plant, administering room and board arrangements, and fundraising. And imagine the school discovers that the best way to promote fundraising is to sell naming rights on buildings, sell honorary degrees to major donors, sell admissions, and sell alumni pride (and reduce advertising and recruiting costs) through winning football games. Thus I could well imagine that a university would behave exactly as the author suggests and yet also behave in a manner that optimizes the Primary Objective.

    No, the university would not be operating in a manner that optimized the symbolic value of the university as a beacon of meritocracy. But who said that’s the university’s goal?

    Comment by nobody.really — October 24, 2007 @ 9:32 pm | Reply

  7. I’d have no objection to a university that honestly presented itself on those terms.

    Comment by Robert — October 24, 2007 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

  8. Ah, there’s the rub. If you know I was admitted to Princeton and received an honorary degree from Oberlin, you may conclude something about me beyond “You gave those guys a lot of money” — even if the only reason I received these honors is because you I gave them a lot of money. And indeed, I will value these honors in part because they will lead you to a wrong conclusion.

    But whose fault is that? Again, assuming the Prime Objective is education, not credentialization, should a school care that others misconstrue its actions? Hey, we at Princeton never said that we don’t admit an occasional dim bulb. We said that we provide a world-class education to some of the brightest people in the world, and we do – thanks in part to the money provided by dim bulbs. Yes, we know the fact that most people admitted to Princeton are bright will lead some people to over-generalize and conclude that EVERYONE admitted is bright. But we didn’t tell people that, and we never asked people to believe that. However, neither are we going to go out of our way to disabuse people of that belief, because that belief increases the market value of an admission letter to Princeton. Remember, the goal isn’t to create a morality tale about meritocracy, it’s about maximizing the Prime Objective.

    Comment by nobody.really — October 25, 2007 @ 3:13 pm | Reply

  9. Very funny. This is the perfect example of misleading math. The article explains:

    “White students who failed to make the grade on all counts were nearly twice as prevalent on such campuses as black and Hispanic students who received an admissions break based on their ethnicity or race.”

    From this ratio, the journalist concludes whites are preferred over blacks, but these numbers prove the opposite.

    But we all know that in average the black population and hispanic populations in the USA is only about 14% of the entire population. Out of 100 applicants to the school, 65 will be white, 14 should be black, and 14 should be hispanic.

    The article states that 15% of students who get in do not have the needed grades. It also explains that 2x more whites are in this group than blacks. Arguing that hispanics are in the same proportion as the blacks, then of the 15% of poor students, we count about 4% blacks, 4% hispanics, and 8% whites (e.g. twice more whites than blacks).

    So of our 65% of whites who applied, 8% got in. Of our 14% of blacks who applied, 4% got in. When looked in %, that becomes:

    8/65 = 12.3%
    4/14 = 28.9%

    So 12.3% of white applicants were given a pass under the standards and 28.9% of the blacks. Essentially this concludes to the reverse of what the journalist was saying.

    I saw this false construction at the WPT (World Poker Tour), they said that since 20% of players of final tables of poker tournaments were asian and asians were only 4% of the US population, this group was better at playing poker. When you look at who signs up for the tournament, you see that 20% are asians, not only 4%.

    Beware of numbers!!!!

    Comment by Vilon — October 31, 2007 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

  10. “White students who failed to make the grade on all counts were nearly twice as prevalent on such campuses as black and Hispanic students who received an admissions break based on their ethnicity or race.”

    From this ratio, the journalist concludes whites are preferred over blacks, but these numbers prove the opposite.

    Really? Where does he conclude that? I’ve read the article twice, and I can’t find that conclusion.

    Rather it seems that the author concludes that more white students benefit from unofficial ‘Affirmative Action’ directed at athletes and sponsors than blacks/Hispanics do from official Affirmative Action. That’s a legitimate observation if whites are not supposed to be beneficiaries of AA at all.

    A bigger problem with the quoted statement is that it doesn’t appear, as far as I can see, in the only paper on the subject written by the two cited researchers. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of their findings, but if it was, it appears to be an unpublished finding.

    Comment by Daran — November 10, 2007 @ 5:54 am | Reply

  11. I remain confused by the term “rachet effect.”

    There’s a standard term used for Robert’s theory in social science literature; it is “mismatch.” “Mismatch hypothesis” is the term that Richard Sander, a scholar that Robert cited as having proven “the ratchet effect,” uses.

    Google finds 450 instances of “ratchet effect” and “affirmative action” in the same documents (the top two matches are both posts by Robert). (You can get many more matches by searching for “rachet” and “affirmative action,” but the majority of the matches seem to be for stuff like “ratchet up their affirmative action efforts”; the only matches I noticed on a quick skim referring to Robert’s theory used the actual phrase “ratchet effect.”)

    In contrast, there are over 75,000 matches for “mismatch” and “affirmative action,” and virtually all of these refer to what I’ve been calling “mismatch theory.”

    So, Robert: Is there a difference between “the ratchet effect” and “mismatch theory”? If so, can you please explain the difference to me?

    And if not, would you consider joining the rest of the world — including the leading scholar taking your side in this debate — by calling it “mismatch”? :-)

    By the way, Richard Sander — the scholar whose work on law school admissions you said proved your point — got his results by counting all students who didn’t say what their race was as “white.” Fixing the error, by classifying those records properly as “race unknown,” makes his statistical “proof” of the mismatch thesis dissolve.

    In the peer-reviewed literature, not a single scholar has taken Sander’s side in this debate, but a bunch — most recently, and with the most sophisticated analysis so far, statistics professor Katharine Barnes (pdf link) — have shown where Sander is in error. The evidence shows that for all law students, regardless of race, their best odds of graduation and of bar passage is to go to the best law school that will accept them, regardless of their grades and their LSATs.

    Unfortunately the negatives to specific people are large enough, I think, to break even my relaxed standards for Pareto goodness.

    Suppose for a moment that I am right about the facts; that using AA to get black and latina/o students get into better schools makes those students more likely to graduate, to pass the bar (assuming they’re lawyers), and to get a good job.

    Furthemore, those white and asian students who are displaced from school “A” are overwhelmingly those who otherwise would have just barely been admitted into “A,” and wind up attending “A-” instead, a very small harm. In contrast, the students aided by AA may well be bumped from C to A schools, significantly improving their life prospects.

    If I was correct about all that, would that alter your position on AA from opposition to endorsement?

    Comment by Ampersand — November 14, 2007 @ 11:43 pm | Reply

  12. “Mismatch” seems at least as good a term, so no worries there.

    I already endorse affirmative action. I don’t endorse quotas or racial preferences. I can’t think of anything that would change my objection on that point. If I’m wrong about mismatch/ratchet effect, then I’m wrong about that, but quotas and racial preferences would remain morally objectionable.

    Comment by Robert — November 15, 2007 @ 12:06 am | Reply

  13. I don’t endorse quotas or racial preferences. I can’t think of anything that would change my objection on that point. If I’m wrong about mismatch/ratchet effect, then I’m wrong about that, but quotas and racial preferences would remain morally objectionable.

    Well, then, you’ve shifted your argument. It seems to me you’re now saying you’d oppose racial preferences even if racial preferences were pareto better-than-alternatives.

    Why are affirmative action racial preferences so incredibly morally objectionable? After all, the alternative to A.A. racial preferences, realistically, isn’t “no racial preferences operate at all” but “only racial preferences that favor white people operate.”

    Comment by Ampersand — November 15, 2007 @ 6:49 pm | Reply

  14. Why are affirmative action racial preferences so incredibly morally objectionable?

    One, they explicitly assign or modify privileges and social status on the basis of skin color.

    Two, they encourage pernicious group identifications and the whole tired politics of grievance.

    Three, they encourage the embrace of the idea by young people that success or failure in life are things which are delivered by outside powers as gifts or entitlements, instead of being the organic product of individual effort.

    Four, they create material incentives for our society to persist in a contrafactual and unscientific view of race/ethnicity.

    Five, they create strife and conflict between ethnic/racial groups by creating politically-distributed “plums”, making it impossible for government to function as a neutral provider of services and instead making the political system an arbiter of material success.

    Comment by Robert — November 15, 2007 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

  15. affirmative action is not just about whites vs. non-whites. women were among the first to benefit from a occupations dominated by men.

    Comment by greywhitie — November 15, 2007 @ 8:05 pm | Reply

  16. a trendy issue concerning bosses in the work force, and this may or may be be a result of affirmative action, is embracing diversity: of different cultures, religions, skin color, sex chromosomes, sexual orientation, etc. etc. the belief is that diversity strengthens the work force. of course, it can also be a source of conflict. but it’s all a matter of attitude, isn’t it? some folks can’t fathom views and practices that differ from those of their own. we have a word for that: small-minded.

    Comment by greywhitie — November 15, 2007 @ 8:55 pm | Reply

  17. Women don’t generally, in my understanding, get points/preferences/quotas, which are the part of AA that I find unacceptable.

    The belief is indeed that diversity strengthens the organization. There is little evidence to support that view; my own experience in twenty years as employer and employee is that diversity brings its own challenges to the table, and it’s basically a wash.

    Comment by Robert — November 15, 2007 @ 9:20 pm | Reply

  18. i don’t know where you can find support for any view or belief. most beliefs are subjective.

    i am neither white nor male, and in all the many years that i have been hired, i never once thought that i was hired because i was female and minority. i was hired based on my own credentials. problem in many of those cases was that i was very overqualified. sometimes being smarter than your supervisor can cause conflict in and of itself, no matter your gender or skin color. i am not good at lying low, which got me into a lot of trouble.

    people, and that includes employers, like to work with those whom they feel comfortable, so chemistry plays a large part in the hiring decision.

    Comment by greywhitie — November 15, 2007 @ 9:54 pm | Reply


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