The Mismatch Effect, in the L.A. Times

As Heather MacDonald points out in the National Review Online, an L.A. Times story from Aug. 16, 2013 is a good case study illustrating my colleague Rick Sander’s mismatch effect thesis. The article is about Kashawn Campbell, who sounds like an immensely appealing and studious young man who has been failed by the system, most recently by UC Berkeley’s attempt to get more black and Hispanic students via “a statewide program to attract top students from every public California high school.” Campbell had done very well at an extremely low-performing Los Angeles high school, and was admitted to Cal — for which he was apparently academically unprepared:

The first essay for the writing class that accounted for half of his course load was so bad his teacher gave him a “No Pass.” Same for the second essay….

At Cal, he was among the hardest workers in the dorm, but he could barely keep afloat.

Seeking help, he went at least once a week to the office of his writing instructor, Verda Delp.

The more she saw him, the more she worried. His writing often didn’t make sense. He struggled to comprehend the readings for her class and think critically about the text.

“It took awhile for him to understand there was a problem,” Delp said. “He could not believe that he needed more skills. He would revise his papers and each time he would turn his work back in having complicated it. The paper would be full of words he thought were academic, writing the way he thought a college student should write, using big words he didn’t have command of.”

Is it really a great service to Campbell to admit him to UC Berkeley? His black classmate Spencer seemed to be thriving there, apparently (judging by the story) based on his having read more as a child; my guess is that Spencer’s SAT scores were likely a good deal higher than Campbell’s, though the story doesn’t mention it. (I do think it’s likely that Campbell’s SAT scores weren’t that high, or else the article would have mentioned it.) But it seems likely that Campbell would have been more successful at a school such as a Cal State, which is more likely to spend more time remedying the gaps in Campbell’s education. That would surely be true for white students who graduated from high school without the academic preparation needed to succeed at Berkeley; why wouldn’t it be equally true for black students? Perhaps Campbell will overcome all this, and graduate from Berkeley with great new skills, with a GPA that impresses employers and graduate school admissions committees, and prepared to do well on graduate admissions tests, if that’s what he wants, or armed with a degree in a field that will allow him to be successful. But the results from the first year don’t seem auspicious, and as Rick has discussed, the long-term results in such situations are often not successful, either (and probably less successful than if Campbell had gone to a school that more matches his current skill set).

I also noted this quote from Campbell, about his experience as a black student at Berkeley:

“Sometimes we feel like we’re not wanted on campus,” Kashawn said, surrounded at a dinner table by several of his dorm mates, all of them nodding in agreement. “It’s usually subtle things, glances or not being invited to study groups. Little, constant aggressions.”

I wish all the best for Campbell, who, as I said, sounds studious and excited about learning. But would you be more likely to invite to your study group (1) someone who is in danger of failing out because he’s academically unprepared for the classes he’s taking (and who might be signaling this lack of preparation based on his comments, in-class or outside), or (2) someone who you think is roughly at your level of skills or higher? I don’t think it’s exactly “aggression,” “little” or otherwise, for people to choose option 1.

(Of course, a story such as this is hardly proof of the mismatch effect — it’s Rick’s research that presents the hard data supporting the mismatch thesis. But if one wants a story to help illustrate the thesis, this seems like a good one.)