Via Ilya Somin, George Will forwards the "mis-match" hypothesis as an argument for abandoning race-based preferences in education admission. Argued most forcefully by UCLA law professor Richard Sander, the mis-match hypothesis argues that race-based affirmative action places minority applicants in schools above their level, at which point they struggle mightily. Someone who would have been a B+ student at the University of Iowa becomes a C- student at the University of Michigan. This has the effect of discouraging minority students, leading to worse rates of employment and bar passage than we would see in absence of affirmative action.
The first thing that has to be said about these studies is that they are deeply controversial, not in the "their conclusions are uncomfortable way", but in the "the data doesn't support the conclusions" sort of way. That's always important to note before we cede too much terrain to this argument off the bat.
But putting that aside, it is an argument I continue to find very, very strange. The basic thrust of the argument is that it is worse for a student to attend a better school. That's counter-intuitive to begin with, but one can see Sander's logic. Where it starts to crumble a bit is that nobody seems to notice or worry about "mis-match" in any other situation but race-based preferences.
Legacy admissions are the obvious control case, as they offer a situation where (mostly) White students are admitted to a school they likely otherwise would not have been in absence of the preference. Two things jump out here. First, I've yet to hear anyone say these students are "mis-matched". People argue against legacy preferences on the grounds that they are unfair to the marginal candidate not admitted to the university, but I've yet to hear anyone argue they hurt the legacy beneficiary. Second, if we're to take mismatch seriously, we'd have to come to the hard-to-swallow conclusion that wealthy, well-connected parents -- the epitome of the sophisticated education consumer -- are deliberately sabotaging their children's academic futures. Someone should tell them.
On a smaller scale, Sander's hypothesis indicates that all the steps law school applicants take to improve their profile without actually becoming smarter (e.g., LSAT prep courses) are actually self-destructive. I took an LSAT prep course and my LSAT score went up four points. Since my LSAT score basically was carrying my GPA on its back, that may have been no small thing in getting admitted to the schools I was. Was I shooting myself in the foot? Oh cruel world, if only I had been placed properly, at the appropriate law school, my life probably wouldn't be such a dismal failure right now.
The other oddity about this, particularly stemming from someone like Somin, is how openly paternalistic it is. Somin writes that he is "pessimistic about the ability of government to institute compensatory justice preferences that are simultaneously equitable and effective in accomplishing their objectives." This is purely an attempt to harmonize some cognitive-dissonance, because it is Somin who is taking the interventionist, big-government approach here. He promotes a one-size-fits-all government mandate which stifles local innovation and prevents schools from adopting the admissions policies they think are optimal for creating the best possible incoming classes.
Public universities are essentially market participants -- they for the most part act similarly to their private counterparts, except when some state law or regulation constrains them or otherwise forces them to modify their behavior. When it comes to affirmative action, it is pretty clear that most state universities, left to their own devices, would practice it. They don't because some law or regulation or court decision forbids it. To test this hypothesis, imagine if tomorrow the University of California, or Michigan, or Nebraska was cut loose and went private. Would they utilize affirmative action for their next incoming class? I think the answer is obviously yes -- in all these controversies, the university administration wants to have such programs and it is some act of government which forbids it.
Somin's argument, hence, is clearly a plea for greater government intrusion in the field of admissions policy -- it replaces what is in essence quasi-private market competition amongst universities (each university decides its own policy, and presumably the one with the best admissions policy is rewarded by having better students, more successful alumni, greater prestige, etc.) with a blanket legal rule. And the "why" is even more embarrassing: First, because he, in his judgment, thinks that the admissions directors and college administrators are so bad at managing these programs that it is better for a government power (the Supreme Court) to make the decision for itself (a command-and-control model); and second, because he is worried for the sake of the students who are being given the opportunity to attend their dream school (i.e., naked paternalism).
The cop-out here is to just say government should get out of the field of education entirely. That's a cop-out because it doesn't answer how we should structure legal rules in a world where that's a pipe dream. It would seem the answer, from a libertarian perspective, would be to have the rules governing these schools approximate a free market regime as much as possible -- to wit, allow the schools to implement whatever admissions standards they want, and certainly don't step in as a paternalistic measure to protect admitted students from their allegedly unwise choices.