The Problem of “Science Mismatch”

Some of the most significant recent work on affirmative action concerns a phenomenon called “science mismatch”. The idea behind science mismatch is very intuitive: if you are a high school senior interested in becoming, for example, a chemist, you may seriously harm your chances of success by attending a school where most of the other would-be chemists have stronger academic preparation than you do. Professors will tend to pitch their class at the median student, not you; and if you struggle or fall behind in the first semester of inorganic chemistry, you will be in even worse shape in the second semester, and in very serious trouble when you hit organic chemistry. You are likely to get bad grades and to either transfer out of chemistry or fail to graduate altogether.

This idea was  first advanced by Dartmouth psychologist Rogers Elliott (and coauthors) in 1996, and using data from several Ivy League schools, he demonstrated that, indeed, attrition rates from the sciences were highly associated with comparatively lower academic preparation, which in turn was highly associated with receiving an admissions preference. His data suggested that a given student was far more likely to achieve a science degree if she attended a school where her pre-college credentials were close to the median science student.

Virginia psychologists Frederick Smyth and John McArdle provided an even stronger demonstration of these points in a 2004 article. Making use of the same data Bowen & Bok used in Shape of the River, they were able to compare similar students who were interested in “STEM” fields (an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math), and who attended schools with either similar peers, somewhat more prepared peers, or much more prepared peers. Smyth and McArdle found strong evidence of science mismatch. Among their key conclusions: had all the black and Hispanic students in their sample enrolled at schools where their credentials were close to the class-wide averages, then 45% more of the women minorities, and 35% more of the men minorities, would have completed STEM degrees.

Duke economists Peter Arcidiacono, Esteban Aucejo, and Ken Spenner last year completed a study that looked at a number of ways that differences in admissions standards at Duke affected academic outcomes. In one of many useful analyses they did, they found that 54% of black men at Duke who, as freshmen, had been interested in STEM fields or economics, had switched out of those fields before graduation; the comparative rate for white men was 8%. Importantly, they found that “these cross-race differences in switching patterns can be fully explained by differences in academic background.” In other words, preferences – not race – was the culprit.

In research conducted by FTC economist Marc Luppino and me, using data from the University of California, we have found important peer effects and mismatch effects that affect students of all races; our results show that one’s chances of completing a science degree fall sharply, at a given level of academic preparation, as one attends more and more elite schools within the UC system. At Berkeley, there is a seven-fold difference in STEM degree completion between students with high and low pre-college credentials.

As is always the case with affirmative action, ironies abound. Although young blacks are about one-seventh as likely as young whites to eventually earn a Ph.D. in STEM fields, academically strong blacks in high school are more likely than similar whites to aspire to science careers. And although a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report in 2010 documented the “science mismatch” phenomenon in some detail, President Obama’s new initiative to improve the nation’s production of scientists neither recognizes nor addresses mismatch.

Unlike my research on law school mismatch, science mismatch has been the subject of little media attention and hardly any academic dispute. In fact, I am unaware of any research that directly disputes any of the studies described above. (If readers know otherwise, please advise.) In other words, there appears to be a strong consensus on the existence of a mismatch problem among all those who have actually studied the interaction of affirmative action and degrees in STEM fields. Across the country, it is plausible that science mismatch undermines the careers of tens of thousands of promising scientists. Yet I am aware of no university that has either acknowledged the problem or taken direct steps to address it.

Science mismatch is, of course, relevant to the general affirmative action debate in showing that preferences can boomerang on their intended beneficiaries. But it also has a special relevance to Fisher v. University of Texas. The university’s main announced purpose in reintroducing racial preferences in 2004 was to increase “classroom” diversity. The university contended that, even though over a fifth of its undergraduates were black or Hispanic, many classrooms had no underrepresented minorities. It sought to use direct (and very large) racial preferences to increase campus URM numbers and thus increase the number of URMs in classes that lacked them. But science mismatch shows that this strategy, too, can be self-defeating. The larger a university’s preferences, the more likely it is that preferenced students will have trouble competing in STEM fields and other majors that are demanding and grade sternly. These students will tend to drop out of the tough fields and congregate in comparatively less demanding ones. Large preferences, in other words, can increase racial segregation across majors and courses within a university, and thus hurt classroom diversity.

More tomorrow.

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