Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Qualified Candidate

Eugene Volokh points to an interesting LA Times piece about a Black student struggling at UC-Berkeley, saying it is a good illustration of Rick Sander's "mismatch" hypothesis (Volokh also links to Heather MacDonald's discussion of the piece, but I don't view MacDonald as a serious writer so I'll confine my discussion to Volokh). Volokh notes, correctly, that the plural of anecdote is not data, and that this story is merely an illustration of an alleged phenomena whose veracity is dependent on the legitimacy of Sander's arguments. And as a story, it is an interesting one -- but Volokh's read of it seems rather motivated to me, if I do say so.

The two main characters in the LA Times story are Kashawn Campbell and his best friend at Berkeley, Spencer Simpson. Campbell's struggles at Berkeley -- despite herculean efforts, he can't pass his Freshman writing course, and narrowly avoids flunking out entirely -- frame the piece and are said to exemplify the "mismatch" problem created by racial affirmative action programs. The mismatch hypothesis, stated broadly, is that allegedly non-meritocratic admissions programs end up hurting their supposed beneficiaries by placing them at institutions where they're destined to fail. In Campbell's case, for example, Volokh argues that he's clearly a bright, talented kid who would do great at Cal State but instead is almost failing out of Berkeley (I've discussed the mismatch hypothesis more generally here and here).

On closer examination, though, the analogy falters quite a bit. To begin, as the LA Times notes, Berkeley cannot actually use race-based affirmative action due to California's Proposition 209, which bans the practice. Instead, Berkeley has a program that seeks to admit students from "every California high school." This does have the effect of increasing racial diversity, due to substantial continued segregation in high schools. But it is not in itself a racial affirmative action program, and no student is advantaged on basis of race. Rather, it advantages students from impoverished, traditionally underperforming schools -- but this sort of "affirmative action", favoring students who are from bad neighborhoods and overcame rough backgrounds -- is often touted as the preferred and legitimate alternative to racial affirmative action (I don't know if Volokh approves of such alternatives to race-based affirmative action, and it's notable that Sander's mismatch arguments would seemingly apply just as strongly to such a program or other more explicitly "class-based" affirmative action initiatives, but I've never heard it used against such programs. Volokh does make reference to "white students who graduated from high school without the academic preparation needed to succeed at Berkeley" implying that they wouldn't benefit from this sort of program -- to the extent their lack of preparation was because they excelled at an underperforming school, as did Campbell, it's unclear why they wouldn't also be a valid candidate).

Moreover, even putting race aside, Campbell appears to be a conventionally attractive admissions candidate. Straight-A student, second in his high school class, impoverished background, overcame considerable adversity, (probably, given what his high school teachers said about him) superlative letters of recommendation. Volokh assumes that his SAT scores weren't that good -- only because they weren't mentioned -- but even stipulating that, unless we're going "SAT score or bust" (which nobody actually advocates) he still looks pretty good. That he's struggling is obviously unfortunate, but it seems less a product of affirmative action and more a problem of the normal indicators not telling the whole story. Indeed, from what we know it seems that Campbell's admissions profile is little different from that of Simpson, who is also Black and also grew up in an impoverished neighborhood, but is reportedly breezing through Berkeley. What distinguishes the two (other than Volokh's hypothesis about SAT scores) is that Simpson's family, despite being from a rough neighborhood, had considerably more cultural capital than did Campbell's -- something that's important, but doesn't show up on the average college application.

There are also hints in the story that more is going on here than Campbell being "unqualified." It is very evident that he's suffering from cultural shock. He feels pressure to emulate a particular style of writing he doesn't have a good grasp on, which exacerbates his general struggles with long essays. He has a very thin support structure. He's using his scholarship money to support his mother. And he reports that he doesn't feel welcome as a Black student on campus:
"Sometimes we feel like we're not wanted on campus," Kashawn said, surrounded at a dinner table by several of his dorm mates, all of them nodding in agreement. "It's usually subtle things, glances or not being invited to study groups. Little, constant aggressions."
I highlight the part I highlight because of they way Volokh responds to this claim:
I wish all the best for Campbell, who, as I said, sounds studious and excited about learning. But would you be more likely to invite to your study group (1) someone who is in danger of failing out because he’s academically unprepared for the classes he’s taking (and who might be signaling this lack of preparation based on his comments, in-class or outside), or (2) someone who you think is roughly at your level of skills or higher? I don’t think it’s exactly “aggression,” “little” or otherwise, for people to choose option 1.
This would be uncharitable even if were just Campbell making the claim. But it isn't -- it is a sentiment apparently widely shared amongst Black students at Berkeley, which makes it difficult to attribute to not wanting to study with a particular struggling student.

As for the remaining culture shock problems, they are undoubtedly issues that retard the progress of students from nontraditional backgrounds. But they're not an issue of qualifications, and unless the solution here is "elite universities should only admit students from elite prep schools and suburban public high schools", it's a problem that top universities are going to have to address.

Finally, let's turn to Volokh's suggestion that Campbell would be a better "fit" at Cal State because that school "is more likely to spend more time remedying the gaps in Campbell’s education." But if Campbell isn't the average UC-Berkeley student, he isn't the prototypical Cal State student either. Cal State-Los Angeles admits over two-thirds of its applicants, who have an average GPA of 3.14 and an average SAT (math plus critical reading) of 880. Campbell had a GPA of 4.06 in high school and graduated second in his class. With all due respect to CSLA, the remedial education programs at that school are designed to turn bad students into passable ones. Campbell is not a bad student -- by all accounts he is bright, intellectually curious, and exceptionally hard-working. The "gaps" in his education are not the same as those typically remedied by CSLA. And CSLA certainly can't provide the job opportunities, alumni networking, or intellectual stimulation that Berkeley can. The "mismatch" problem, it seems to me, is that there aren't schools "matched" to someone fitting Campbell's profile -- someone who I bet could in terms of natural talent keep up with his Berkeley peers were it not for the deficits he incurred from his background and from being such a clear cultural outlier at his university. The solution to shunt all people like Campbell into the Cal State system is not a solution at all.

I've often remarked that we don't think in mismatch terms in any context except affirmative action. Nobody ever warns the wealthy suburban kid straining to get into his "reach" school that he may be setting himself up for failure. In general, we believe that more rigorous schools are better and that its a benefit rather than a curse to be academically challenged. Campbell, of course, could no doubt transfer to Cal State if he thought it would be a better fit for him. Clearly, though, he sees value in his experience at Berkeley. And what's more, I've seen people at Carleton who were similarly situated to Campbell -- bright, talented individuals from low-performing schools who came in for a huge shock when they got to Northfield. These people had something in common -- they tended to get hammered their freshman year. And then often they had something else in common: the same talent, and fortitude, and will and skill that got them to Carleton caused them to claw back. They might not have graduated summa, but they learned and grew and became strong, successful students. Campbell, who managed to scratch out an A- when he took a course he felt comfortable in, strikes me as the sort of person who can follow a similar trajectory.

What we have in Keshawn Campbell, it seems to me, is an exceptionally bright, talented, hard-working individual who due to his background has obstacles in his path that other otherwise similarly situated students don't have. To the extent that Berkeley is supposed to identify outstanding young people and serve as a signal and pipeline to their entry into leadership roles in our society, he's exactly the right sort of candidate for admission. That it requires more intensive work on Berkeley's part to assist him doesn't strike me as a failing of the system on Berkeley's part (though perhaps of the educational system that got him there), but rather a necessary corollary to their meritocratic ambition of identify future leaders from all walks of life, proverbial "diamonds in the rough" included.

1 comment:

PG said...

Troubling that Volokh's solution is to shunt people who could be high-achievers with a little remedial education to second-tier schools, rather than, say, to provide remedial resources at the top-tier schools.

I've harped on this before, but one thing I really liked about UVa despite its obvious racial issues is that the university didn't just admit African American students; it also provided a significant amount of resources in counseling, mentoring, tutoring, etc. to ensure that those students would succeed and graduate at rates not much less than their white peers.

But of course if you have something like an Office of African-American Affairs that has a specific mission of advocacy for black students, that's going to horrify the proponents of "color-blindness."

On a separate point, I wonder how much the black students' sense of being unwelcome at UC-Berkeley (and possibly some other UC system schools) is driven by Asian students' being the majority at those schools. Part of the problem with Americans' tendency to frame race as a black-white issue is that we ignore how minorities interact with one another.