On Friday I discussed a body of research – all of it uncontroverted – that documents a serious flaw in affirmative action programs pursued by elite colleges. Students who receive large preferences and arrive on campus hoping to major in STEM fields (e.g., Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) tend to migrate out of those fields at very high rates, or, if they remain in those fields, often either fail to graduate or graduate with very low GPAs. There is thus a strong tension between receiving a large admissions preference to a more elite school, and one’s ability to pursue a STEM career.
Is it possible for contemporary American universities to engage constructively with this type of research? Recent events at Duke University suggest not.
The Duke study I described in Friday’s post (by economists Peter Arcidiacono and Esteban Aucejo, and by sociologist Ken Spenner, all of Duke) was motivated by an important question: do students who receive large admissions preferences “catch up” with their peers over their college years? This ties into an important premise of many preference programs – i.e., that the rich resources of an elite university will help to phase out prior preparation gaps between students of different races. Aggregate data at Duke suggested that the GPA gap across racial groups was, indeed, narrowing as college progressed, from over half-a-point black/white GPA gap in the first semester, to less than three-tenths of a point by the eighth semester.
Using data gathered by the university, Arcidiacono et al found that this narrowing was illusory. Courses taken by juniors and seniors were graded very leniently, and, more importantly, students who had bad grades in their freshmen year migrated in large numbers from STEM fields and economics to other majors, which generally had easier grading. When one adjusted for these [...]