Paul L. Caron

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Heriot: Why Aren’t There More Black Scientists? Racial Preferences In University Admissions.

Wall Street Journal op-ed:  Why Aren’t There More Black Scientists?, by Gail Heriot (San Diego):

The evidence suggests that one reason is the perverse impact of university racial preferences.

Remember when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) that universities would no longer need race-preferential admissions policies in 25 years? By the end of this year, that period will be half over. Yet the level of preferential treatment given to minority students has, if anything, increased.

Meanwhile, numerous studies—as I explain in a recent report for the Heritage Foundation [A "Dubious Expediency": How Race-Preferential Admissions Policies on Campus Hurt Minority Students]—show that the supposed beneficiaries of affirmative action are less likely to go on to high-prestige careers than otherwise-identical students who attend schools where their entering academic credentials put them in the middle of the class or higher. In other words, encouraging black students to attend schools where their entering credentials place them near the bottom of the class has resulted in fewer black physicians, engineers, scientists, lawyers and professors than would otherwise be the case.

But university administrators don’t want to hear that their support for affirmative action has left many intended beneficiaries worse off, and they refuse to take the evidence seriously.

The mainstream media support them on this. The Washington Post, for instance, recently featured a story lamenting that black students are less likely to major in science and engineering than their Asian or white counterparts. Left unstated was why. As my report shows, while black students tend to be a little more interested in majoring in science and engineering than whites when they first enter college, they transfer into softer majors in much larger numbers and so end up with fewer science or engineering degrees.

This is not because they don’t have the right stuff. Many do—as demonstrated by the fact that students with identical entering academic credentials attending somewhat less competitive schools persevere in their quest for a science or engineering degree and ultimately succeed. Rather, for many, it is because they took on too much, too soon given their level of academic preparation.

It is no fluke that historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, have an excellent record of graduating future scientists and engineers. In 2006 HBCUs accounted for 21% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to black students. Yet 33% of the black students awarded Ph.D.s in science or engineering had received their bachelor’s degree at an HBCU. Probably the single most important reason is that at HBCUs half the black students have entering credentials in the top half of the class. At competitive colleges elsewhere, given race-preferential admissions, black student credentials cluster at the bottom. ...

About 50% of the public medical schools I recently surveyed have since been warned by their official accreditor—the Liaison Committee on Medical Education—that they need to pay more attention to racially diversifying their classes. At least one law school, George Mason University, had its re-accreditation seriously threatened for failure to toe the diversity line.

This is where Congress can help, by prohibiting accreditors from wading into student-body diversity issues. This proposal is modest, since it will not prevent any school from pursuing its own preferred diversity policy. But it is a first step toward bringing race-preferential policies under control—something that Justice O’Connor mistakenly believed would happen on its own.

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We aren't talking about OSU and Michigan here, we're talking about the Ivies, Little Ivies, and their peers. Recruited athletes in this realm means rowing, squash, lacrosse, polo, golf, sailing, and similar. Multiple studies corroborate this.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Oct 24, 2015 11:09:45 AM

The mechanism is trivial: In any good college there should be some filtering, and it will be of the bottom students.
Therefore, directing students to a college where they'll be at the bottom effectively forces them to fail.

Posted by: Dmitry | Oct 23, 2015 11:04:45 PM

"recruited athlete admissions"

When was the last time you saw a football or basketball team that wasn't majority minority?

Posted by: SDN | Oct 23, 2015 6:16:10 PM

How about average IQ 80 vs: 100?

Posted by: Bully | Oct 23, 2015 2:08:03 PM


1. It’s Matt, not Mark.

2. Ah, no, actually I am directly disputing the author’s thesis, which is that “the supposed beneficiaries of affirmative action are less likely to go on to high-prestige careers” and in that respect “affirmative action has left many intended beneficiaries worse off” “because they took on too much, too soon.”

I am specifically arguing that the evidence the author interprets as supporting that thesis – based on comparing the percentage of black graduates from particular schools who pursue careers in science or engineering – may very well not reflect the choice of lower prestige careers, not indicate that the “intended beneficiaries” are “worse off,” and not have any relationship to “taking on too much.” Instead, the evidence may reflect students choosing equally or more prestigious careers that happen not to be in the sciences in circumstances where they face less economic pressure to do so. If in fact that is the case, those students are better off in the very real sense that they had a broader choice of remunerative careers, regardless of what anyone may think of the particular choice they made. And, in that situation, it would be quite strange to characterize the students as having taken on too much by choosing to attend an academically prestigious institution.

So, while my quarrel does not happen to be with the title of the article, it is with far more than the author’s “angle” on black students’ utility judgments. It is with her fundamental thesis that race preferences in admissions harm minority students. If you still do not see that this is her thesis, click through to her Heritage paper that is linked from the article, and I think it will jump out at you pretty quickly.

Posted by: Matt | Oct 23, 2015 1:00:33 PM

I practiced in a vertically integrated ophthalmic practice in the Midwest until my retirement two years ago. The professional staff was almost entirely white. We recruited two black surgeons, both of whom were quite gifted. One specialized in cornea and the other was a high volume cataract surgeon. He also knew his way around oculoplastics as well. So notwithstanding Professor Heriot's findings, it's good to view people as individuals.

Posted by: JMOD46 | Oct 23, 2015 12:28:11 PM


If I recall correctly, a slight majority of Ivy grads (at least from the big three) go into finance or management consulting. At least from a financial standpoint, that is a better outcome than law, engineering, or medicine.

Side note: it is interesting, shall we say, to read some of these comments that at least implicitly assume that all URM's only get into elite colleges because of AA.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Oct 23, 2015 8:55:06 AM

Shockingly, this WSJ op-ed says nothing of legacy or recruited athlete admissions,

Is equality of legacy or athletic status constitutionally guaranteed?

Posted by: Marshal | Oct 23, 2015 8:52:30 AM

It's pretty obvious they DON'T have the right stuff. It's as simple as that. Majoring in science and engineering is hard work, even if you have talent.

Most blacks w/ good credentials get them b/c of grade inflation and little competition before college. That leaves them w/o a solid basis for study, and complete unfamiliarity with the rigors of scholarship that are required to be successful in STEM areas.

Posted by: Mr. Obvious | Oct 23, 2015 8:27:02 AM

Average IQ
Ashkenazi Jews: 117
Blacks: 85

There's your problem...

Posted by: Emma Morrow | Oct 23, 2015 8:12:06 AM


Your counterargument actually supports the thesis here, and does not detract from it.

If admission to a prestige school ensures you a job no matter what your major, then admitting minority students to schools that outrank their race-blind qualifications would also tend to steer those students to non-technical majors.

A student who might have chosen to study engineering at a SUNY school may choose to study history if they get into Harvard.

If your argument is correct, then we would actually expect to see exactly the kind of major-shifting the article describes. You're merely approaching the utility judgment being made by these students from a slightly different angle than the author.

Posted by: tbrookside | Oct 23, 2015 7:13:04 AM

@Unemployed Northeastern
Maybe because that's beside the point of the article. Is it better to be an Ivy League dropout (or Ivy League liberal arts major), or a graduate of a lesser school with a STEM degree? Which do you think will lead to more doctors, lawyers, and engineers?

Posted by: Ben | Oct 23, 2015 7:10:19 AM


Not necessarily. Check out "Catching Up Is Hard to Do: Undergraduate Prestige, Elite Graduate Programs, and the Earnings Premium" by the economist Joni Hersch, who teaches in both the law and business schools at Vanderbilt. From the abstract: "Few graduates of nonselective institutions earn post-baccalaureate degrees from elite institutions, and even when they do, undergraduate institutional prestige continues to influence earnings overall and among those with law, medical, graduate business and doctoral degrees."

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Oct 22, 2015 2:45:40 PM

There was a time before affirmative action, black people were not doing as well then.

It is hard to convince children to study when they can see that no matter how hard they try they will not receive the same opportunities because of the color of their skin.

Let me be clear underrepresented minorities may receive affirmative action in some school admissions. Other people receive privilege for life.

People like to cite the N.B.A as a counterpoint. However, citing the players on the floor without considering the statistics of an entire organization is a huge oversight.

Finally, black kids who plan on going to graduate school go to HBCUs for support. The type of support that gets you into PhD and other graduate programs recommendations, research, and teaching assistant positions.

Unconscious bias may limits these opportunities in non HBCUs similar to how it limits opportunist for employment.

Along the same lines, I have no idea why black students continue to go to any UC school.

Posted by: This again | Oct 22, 2015 2:27:12 PM

Perhaps the author's political position is coloring her reasoning. It seems just as likely to me that black (or white) students at a school with a less well-known name would be more likely to turn to STEM disciplines because doing so increases the value of the degree to a greater extent than it would at a more renowned institution.

A history or philosophy degree from Harvard or Yale will get you plenty of job offers. And you won’t have a bunch of counselors telling you that you’d better go into engineering if you want to make any money. If you attend a lower-prestige school, on the other hand, notwithstanding your excellent education your job prospects may be very different if you choose to study philosophy instead of engineering.

It seems quite possible that the evidence the author is seeing reflects this reality, rather than a failure to realize potential on the part of the “lesser-credentialed” admits at more prestigious schools.

Posted by: Matt | Oct 22, 2015 1:58:49 PM

I think there is something to attending a lesser undergrad, where the chance for thriving may be increased. I see many times over associates at mid-to-large firms that went to Nowheresville University then on to the top in-state law school. Your bigger regional law firms do not seem to care that your college may have been as rigorous as some high schools; they just want the named law school to put on the website biography.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 22, 2015 12:13:12 PM

Shockingly, this WSJ op-ed says nothing of legacy or recruited athlete admissions, which overwhelmingly favor underqualified, wealthy white applicants and account for FAR more admissions slots at the Ivies and similar than under-represented minorities, even if you are the type of person to believe that each and every under-represented minority only got in because of affirmative action. And as studies like Princeton president emeritus William Bowen's study "Reclaiming the Game" show, those legacies and athletes also tend to hover in the bottom of their classes.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Oct 22, 2015 10:55:12 AM