Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia References Theory That Doesn’t Hold Water

Last week when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia let fly with language that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid denounced as “racist rhetoric,” at Black Enterprise we stressed the critical role that historically black colleges–the schools the justice may have been alluding to–have played in preparing many of the nation’s leaders of African descent. However, Scalia’s comments raise another question: Does attending selective colleges that are not HBCUs “harm” black students, as Scalia seemed to suggest? (We didn’t know he cared.) Here, an excerpt from Urban Wire addresses the mismatch theory, a discredited hypothesis without any evidence to support it. In fact, evidence shows that students who attend more selective schools are not harmed but are more likely to graduate from them.

[Related: Race in College Admissions: LDF and MALDEF Respond to Fisher v. University of Texas Decision]

From Urban Wire:

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made news last week when he commented that black college students might be better off going to “less-advanced,” “slower-track” schools where they would be more likely to do well because the classes are not “too fast for them.” These comments are not just indelicately worded–they also reference a theory that has been largely discredited by social science. (Evidence that claims to support Scalia’s viewpoint withers upon closer examination.)

Scalia made these comments during oral arguments for a prominent affirmative action case, in which the court is considering (for the second time in three years) whether the use of racial preferences in university admissions violates the Constitution. His remarks reference the so-called “mismatch hypothesis,” which posits that minority students are harmed by policies that allow them to attend competitive colleges for which they lack adequate academic preparation.

Mismatch is possible in theory, but it presents an empirical question as to whether selective colleges admit students who would be better off at less challenging institutions. Straightforward comparisons of students with similar academic credentials who attended different colleges consistently find that students are more likely to graduate from more selective institutions. This finding holds for all groups of students examined, including underrepresented minorities and students with weaker academic preparation.

Critics of this line of research correctly note that these comparisons may be biased by unobserved differences among students. But studies that take advantage of random variation in college choice, such as that induced by cutoff-based scholarships, also find that students are more likely to succeed at colleges that are more selective than at less demanding institutions. For example, one recent study found that a Massachusetts scholarship program caused students to attend lower quality, in-state colleges and be less likely to graduate as a result.

Read more at Urban Wire.