Responding to Critics (2): "Second-choice" students

This is the second in a series of postings further explaining my work on the use and effects of racial preferences in law schools, and responding to critics of my work. One of the central claims in my research is that black law students are often "mismatched" by large racial preferences, placing them at schools where they do poorly and actually learn less than they would at a school with a smaller preference or no preference at all.

On Friday, I posted a new analysis that strongly corroborates the "mismatch" story: for a large sample of blacks admitted to law schools, those who passed up their "first choice" law school and went to a lower-ranked school -- in other words, going to a school where they would have been admitted with a smaller preference -- had dramatically better outcomes (grades, graduation, and bar passage) than blacks who made no such choice. Today I want to address some questions raised by this analysis.

First, are the results significant and reliable? The database for this analysis includes 1,757 black students entering law school in 1991. Just under one-tenth of these students (171) were admitted to their first-choice law school but chose to go to another school. This is a pretty large sample, and it means that any outcome where the success rate of the two groups of blacks is more than six or seven points apart (e.g., 80% vs. 87%) will be statistically significant. Pretty much all of the outcomes for black second-choice students are, in fact, better than the outcomes for other black students, by at least that margin (and sometimes by as much as 20 percentage points). So the answer to the first question is a resounding Yes.

Second, are there differences between the black second-choice students, and other black law students, that might account for their different rates of success? There is one important difference -- the blacks who chose their second-choice school have, as a group, slightly higher average credentials than other black students. That difference accounts for about one-seventh of their higher performance. Otherwise, the black second-choice students are largely indistinguishable from other blacks at the outset of their law school careers. They are about equally likely to have a parent who attended law school (6% for the second-choicers vs. 7% for other blacks), to have a "burning desire" to become a lawyer (30% vs. 30%), to be "very concerned" about getting good grades (89% vs. 88%), and to believe they experienced discrimination during college (68% vs. 64%).

The factor that makes second-choice blacks truly different is simply that they are less mismatched with their classmates than other blacks are. Because they have turned down their "first-choice" school, they are at a school where, on average, their "academic index" is only 93 points below the class mean, compared with a 140-point deficit for other blacks. This in turn means that they get significantly higher grades, on average -- and that, in all likelihood, makes all the difference for their future outcomes.

Going back to the technical discussion, controlling for differences in entering credentials makes one of the six interesting outcomes for these two groups statistically insignificant (ultimate bar passage). But the other five (first-year grades, third-year grades, graduation rate, first-time bar passage, and rate at which matriculants become lawyers) are significant, and all six outcomes are much higher for the second-choice blacks. One can debate what the proper controls should be -- which factors and comparison groups provide the fairest comparison -- but I have seen no analysis in which the second-choice blacks do not substantially outperform the comparison black group, and in which at least some of the differences are highly statistically significant.

Moreover, since the findings of the mismatch theory came from an entirely different analysis (comparing blacks and whites), but predict with great precision the actual improvements in outcomes for the black second-choice students, it would be hard to imagine a more compelling confirmation of its basic theses.

Responding to comments:

"Mahan Atma" says the results are "nonsense" because the blacks going to second-choice schools are not randomly selected; without randomization, there can be no true statistical significance. Not so. It is of course possible to determine the signficance of a difference between two groups that have not been randomly selected—all that significance in this context means is that the difference almost certainly is not due to randomness, but to some real distinction between the two samples. The crucial issue then is what variable accounts for this difference. The point of all regression analysis in the social sciences is to control for plausible differences that might explain why two groups have different outcomes. I find that when one uses these controls, the performance gap between the black second-choice students and others is largely intact -- and statistically significant.

"Michael" contends that the BPS dataset is too noisy to be useful; some respondents do not understand the questions properly and miscategorize themselves. But I counted as "second-choice" students only those who said that they had been admitted to more than one law school, and who did not attend their first-choice school for an identified reason (usually geographic or financial constraints). Moreover, we can accurately estimate the size of the mismatch these students faced at their schools. Certainly it's possible that some of the students I've identified as black "second-choice" students had their hearts set on going to UCLA, but went to their second-choice, Harvard, because Harvard offered them more money. But there can't be many such students (or the average size of the mismatch these students face wouldn't show up as being as small as it does), and to the extent such noise exists in the data, it simply implies that the results were strong enough to show through that noise.

"Donald" and several others wondered how the "second-choice" effects would play out for whites. I discuss this issue in some detail in my "Reply to Critics". Here's a short answer. The substantial number of whites who indicated they turned down their first-choice school (largely for the same reasons as blacks) tended to end up with a "positive mismatch" -- that is, they had higher credentials than most of their classmates. This led, predictably, to higher grades in law school -- well above the class median. In the top half of the class at most law schools, however, there isn't much difference in graduation and bar outcomes -- the vast majority of students graduate and pass the bar. Consequently, the benefits from a "positive mismatch" are a lot smaller than the harms of a large "negative mismatch". So "theory" predicts that whites going to second-choice schools will see little if any improvement in graduation and bar passage rates, and that's borne out by the data. (The white "second-choice" students may see significant job market benefits, but I haven't tested that idea yet.)

More coming up….