Creative Destruction

December 3, 2006

Affirmative Action Once Again – Answering Amp

Filed under: Blogosphere,Debate,Education — Robert @ 5:25 am

For those of you with time horizons shorter than the leisurely weeks and months that we lofty Internet intellectuals think in terms of, in this post from last week Ampersand attempts to discredit the ratchet effect, a hypothesis about racially preferred students’ placement and performance in higher education. He is, of course, wrong and bad, although a decent enough fellow. I continue to believe that the ratchet effect is a valid interpretation of the data we have, and something which supports the idea of ending purely racial preferences in college admissions.

Because Amp has written a novel, and because I have no wish to reciprocate, I will basically ignore all of the opinions that Amp states and respond strictly to the facts.


Empirical evidence shows that the mismatch hypothosis is fiction. The truth is, minority students in colleges that practice AA are more likely to graduate than minority students with identical academic “qualifications” (i.e., SAT scores, class rank, etc.) who attend less-highly-ranked colleges.

How can this be?…[long list of possible explanatory factors for the good performance of racially preferred students at elite institutions snipped, because agreed with]

There is no doubt whatsoever that going to a good school means going to a good school, Amp – which of course means higher performing people and higher performances turned in. That’s what elite means.

But most folks at college aren’t at Yale. They don’t have lavish endowment grants and peer groups made up of high-social capital individuals and the most brilliant TAs in the world. It would be nice if they did, but they don’t. The majority of the people who are affected by the ratchet effect – the VAST majority – attend community colleges and state schools, not the Ivy League.

I need you to clarify one point. The citations you have provided support the idea that at the high end of the spectrum, racially preferred students’ collective performance is higher than at lower levels, and I concede that point above. You have rhetorically, however, generalized this into a sentiment that a higher level automatically means a higher performance, across the entire curve. That does not appear supported in what you have presented, and so I ask you to clarify the strength of your claim, and to provide appropriate citations if it is in fact stronger than what I have yielded.

The quibbles about study design and methodology I lack competence to address, so I won’t. I will note, however, that the “zinger” paragraph you pulled from Light and Strayer doesn’t, in fact, support you in the argument we’re having. You write:

Light and Strayer conclude that the data is “consistent with the notion that racial preferences in college admissions boost minorities’ chances of attending college and that retention programs directed at minority students subsequently enhance their chances of earning a degree.”

I wouldn’t disagree with either of those points. I’m not a scholar of minority college attendance per se, but it would seem logical to assume that preferences would boost that statistic. And of course, retention programs directed at anyone, if competently run, will boost that group’s numbers – and good on ’em. What do either of these propositions have to do with the ratchet effect? (Particularly the ex-post-facto retention effort point – do you believe that if I open an umbrella, that means the rain isn’t falling?)

The Alon/Tienda results you quote simply provide more evidence that higher-quality schools are better than lower-quality schools. Of course performance is better the higher you go up the ladder. The question isn’t “will Yale help Frank graduate” – of course it will. The question is whether Frank will do better if he goes to Yale, or if he goes to Cornell, and whether the currently existing Franks are making decisions that are suboptimal for their life outcomes.

Amp again:

The evidence is clear:There is no “mismatch” problem with affirmative action. Being able to attend better universities increases the odds that black and hispanic students will graduate. Right-wing proposals to eliminate affirmative action, far from helping hispanic and black students, would deprive some minority students of access to the best colleges while lowering their odds of graduating.

Well, the evidence may be clear somewhere, but that isn’t here. You’ve produced evidence that better schools are better places to go to school. This wasn’t a controversial point, and it doesn’t have any bearing on whether there is a mismatch between students and institutions.

I believe that your basic error here is conceptual, not philosophical. You see a result that says “the grazing is better on field A than on field B”. You see a report that says “the cows on field B are not as fat as the cows on field A”. And you reach the conclusion that “the more cows that graze on field A, the better off all cows will be!” Which will be true – for the first few cows to switch pasture. (What you ought to be asking is “how do we make field B more like field A”.)

Higher education isn’t a cow pasture. (Although the end product often bears a certain resemblance.) But you are thinking about it statistically, instead of individually – and it all happens individually. The statistics are just the mirror, they aren’t the view – and if you go by the mirror, you’ll get everything backwards.


  1. I believe that your basic error here is conceptual, not philosophical. You see a result that says “the grazing is better on field A than on field B”. You see a report that says “the cows on field B are not as fat as the cows on field A”. And you reach the conclusion that “the more cows that graze on field A, the better off all cows will be!” Which will be true – for the first few cows to switch pasture. (What you ought to be asking is “how do we make field B more like field A”.)

    Bob, I hate to say this, but this has to be one of the most profound things you’ve contributed so far. Indeed, it it can be applied to many of the principles that concern all sides of the political dodecahedron. Give me a few days (or weeks) to chew on things, and I’ll see what I can do to expand this line of thought.

    Comment by Off Colfax — December 3, 2006 @ 6:41 am | Reply

  2. First, Robert, your current position appears to contradict the one Amp quoted earlier. That quote says the negative effect applies across the board, and specifically mentions “the really bright black kid who would do great at Cornell but fails out of Yale.” You also mention Yale again here, and you fail to explain how this Frank fellow can do worse if he goes to Yale even though (you now say) it will obviously help him graduate. What do you mean to say here?

    Amp’s quote from Alon and Tienda says clearly and precisely, “Minority students’ likelihood of graduation increases as the selectivity of the institution attended rises.”

    Comment by hf — December 3, 2006 @ 9:27 pm | Reply

  3. HF, my original postings made it clear that the ratchet effect was less operative at the very highest end (because there was no higher echelon draining off the people who ought to be at Yale instead of hyper-Yale).

    The fact that there is more support available at better schools doesn’t speak to the question of whether a student is appropriately matched to the school.

    Comment by Robert — December 3, 2006 @ 9:49 pm | Reply

  4. How can community college students be hit by the ratchet effect? Don’t they take anyone?

    Also, Ampersand says that Light and Strayer concluded that racial preferences in admissions help minorities attend college. How is this possible? Doesn’t it just help them attend better colleges than they would otherwise be able to? I can’t imagine that anyone passes up a chance to go to a state college because he can’t get into an Ivy League school, or the lower-ranked state college because he can’t get into the good one.

    Comment by Brandon Berg — December 4, 2006 @ 1:15 am | Reply

  5. OK, this grew into the longest comment in history. Sorry about that.

    Also, Ampersand says that Light and Strayer concluded that racial preferences in admissions help minorities attend college

    Well, Light and Strayer’s own text would probably be the place to find the answer to that question, but that requires research. Let’s just BS it.

    I think we can take it as a matter of general agreement that (say) an ordinary black youth has certain disadvantages in life. There are people who will not like him because of the color of his skin. There are greater chances that he faces adverse circumstance in his educational, social or family environments. And so forth. We can argue about the weight of these various oppressions but there is general agreement (at least here) that they exist.

    If you weigh someone down, you also slow her down. A significant part of the college evaluation that goes on is based in large part on how quick you are. College is a learning machine, and machines don’t generally want slow parts, so they’re likely to turn down the kid who’s a year or two behind.

    That ends up having detrimental effects on our hypothetical black teen (HBT). S/he’s perhaps someone who is striving – but has adversarial conditions in her life that result in a low GPA, or bad attendance, etc. Seeking a better life, HBT seeks to attend college nonetheless. The college looks at her record and thinks “borderline case”.

    If the college, however, also has a racial preference in place, it thinks “borderline case + bonus points = admit”. And in comes HBT! Which, on the whole, is a good thing. A student who really is bright enough to be in college is in college; hooray!

    In terms of admission chances, I will freely concede that racial preferences have substantive beneficial effects for the preferred students. (Amp seems to have attacked this point pretty hard, so I like to make complete my surrender on it.)

    Indeed, it is partially because I believe those benefits exist (albeit the net benefit is decremented by the existence of the ratchet effect), that I believe racial preferences to immoral; it’s wrong to award privileges to people on the basis of their race.

    Wrong when it was Noah and Pharoah, wrong when it was Sumerians and God knows who, wrong when it’s white people in the Americas, wrong when it’s N people in X country. Wrong, a priori.

    I don’t even pretend to believe that the benefit being delivered to racially preferred minorities today approaches the scale of some of those historical injustices, but the principle is operative both when matters are life and death and when they are trivial, and every point between. (My outrage is scaled accordingly; I estimate I give 1/1000th the energy and attention to racial preferences in college admissions, that I would give to some giant race war.)

    How can community college students be hit by the ratchet effect? Don’t they take anyone?

    In the case of community colleges, I wager that the effect hits them like this: students who really ought to do a year in community college instead go off to State. Sometimes they come back after a good try, sometimes they make it at State, sometimes they fail and just drop out completely. In any event, it represents a reduction in the talent pool available to the community colleges.

    Some of them probably just shrink to adjust to the market demand change. Others, particularly private institutions at that level, increase their marketing operations and lower their standards. That’s speculative; maybe they all just shrink, in which case, no problem. There is a problem, however, in that the average level of the students enrolled is now slightly lower. The best ones have all been taken up to State.

    In my college experience, classes were proportionally more valuable the smarter my fellow students were. (And the professor, too.) Classes where we had lots of bright kids moved faster and did everyone a lot of good. Sappy as it is to say, when there are lots of bright kids you often get situations where the bright help the slow keep up. Classes without those “stars” tended to drag, as the instructors have to spend a lot of time wiping noses and patiently repeating instructions which are written right there on the freaking syllabus…sorry, flashback. All better.

    In any event, that’s the one thing I’d confidently wager as a ratchet effect negative impact on community colleges: fewer star pupils.

    Comment by Robert — December 4, 2006 @ 6:06 am | Reply

  6. Robert, as I see it you’ve now taken back your entire post, admitted the ratchet effect does not exist for the allegedly “mismatched” students. (I want to point out in passing that if we take them literally, Alon and Tienda say the positive effect for minority students who get in through this policy applies at all colleges.) You now assert a different uncomfirmed drawback. (Bright kids may help the class keep up as long as they stay in school, but you’ve just conceded that the students in question have more chance of dropping out if the lack of affirmitive action creates a mismatch between bright student and school.) You also say that “it’s wrong to award privileges to people on the basis of their race,” right after admitting that society does exactly that, unintentionally, in the abscence of this policy.

    Comment by hf — December 4, 2006 @ 2:47 pm | Reply

  7. HF – No, I haven’t admitted that. You’re misreading what I’ve written.

    Comment by Robert — December 4, 2006 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

  8. Then, again, what do you mean to say? (Admitted what?) I see now you maintain that a ratchet effect exists for State colleges (after saying “racial preferences have substantive beneficial effects for the preferred students.”) You don’t give evidence for this view, nor explain what you think Alon and Tienda mean when they appear to contradict you.

    Comment by hf — December 4, 2006 @ 3:57 pm | Reply

  9. I mean to say what I’ve said. I can’t help you parse English.

    Comment by Robert — December 4, 2006 @ 4:51 pm | Reply

  10. HF:

    …after saying “racial preferences have substantive beneficial effects for the preferred students.”

    They’re not called “dependent clauses” just because they live in their parents’ basements.

    Comment by Brandon Berg — December 5, 2006 @ 12:12 am | Reply

  11. Whoops. That was the independent clause. Don’t know how I got that mixed up. But the point stands—by quoting only a portion of Robert’s sentence, you changed the meaning entirely.

    Comment by Brandon Berg — December 5, 2006 @ 2:03 am | Reply

  12. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Huge Numbers of Unqualified Students Attend Elite Colleges… « Creative Destruction — October 23, 2007 @ 3:54 am | Reply

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