Current Debates

Affirmative Action in Higher Education (The “Mismatch” Hypothesis)


What role, if any, should race, ethnicity, and gender play in university admissions? As we saw in Chapter 6, the admission policies of many selective colleges and universities have given an advantage to racial and ethnic minorities to compensate for past discrimination and to ensure a diverse student body.

How important are these goals? Jim Crow segregation ended (formally, at least) 50 years ago: Should higher education still be thinking in terms of redressing past injustices?

How important is diversity on a campus? Does it have educational benefits? Does granting admission to a minority student with lower GPA and test scores amount to reverse discrimination against a more qualified white student? Are less-qualified minority students being set up for failure when they are admitted to selective universities? If they succeed, won’t their achievements be stigmatized and viewed as tainted?

These and myriad other issues continue to animate discussions of affirmative action. In this installment of Current Debates, we’ll focus on one of these issues. The “mismatch hypothesis” argues that many minority students admitted to elite universities by affirmative action policies are placed in classrooms where they cannot compete effectively. They are set up to fail, even though they could easily succeed on less selective campuses.

The mismatch hypothesis is fully presented in a recent book (Sander and Taylor, 2013), which you should explore to fully understand the argument. We will focus on a shorter version of the argument, as presented in a magazine article by the same authors, Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor. The counter-argument, presented by sociologist William Kidder, argues that Sander and Taylor systematically misuse the evidence and misstate their case. The selections are preceded by a brief history of affirmative action, which will provide more perspective on the issues being debated

Both sides present their positions with conviction and you may find yourself switching sides in the argument as you consider the positions. Thus, it is important that you consider the positions carefully and in the context of this chapter and the “Debate Questions to Consider.”



A History of Affirmative Action

The Mismatch Hypothesis

Scroll through the article, paying particular attention to:

  • Their definitions and explanation of “mismatch”
  • What they mean by “large” and “small” preferences in admission policies and the consequences of each
  • The evidence they cite in favor of their thesis

An Argument against the Mismatch Hypothesis


Scroll through the article, paying particular attention to:

  • The nature of his arguments against Sander and Taylor
  • The evidence and studies he cites




  • Do you think that Sander and Taylor want to eliminate all affirmative action programs or are they arguing for reform?


  • Proposition 209, passed in 1996 by statewide referendum, ended racial preferences in college and university admissions in California. According to Sander and Taylor, what effect did Proposition 209 have on graduation rates for black and Hispanic students? Why? How does Kidder respond to this argument? Which of the two arguments makes the most sense? Why?


  • One possible criticism of Sander and Taylor is that their argument ignores the reasons that affirmative action programs were implemented in the first place. Do they seem to take account of forces such past-in-present discrimination? Do they take adequate account of the context of race and ethnic relations in the United States?


  • How does Kidder argue against Sander and Taylor? How does he build his case and    what evidence does he cite? Does his point of view seem more anchored in social science research? Why?


  • Even if mismatch is a problem, is this a reason to end Affirmative Action? Are there ways to reduce “mismatch” and improve the performance of less-well-qualified students? Are selective universities obligated to implement such programs? Why or why not?


  • Ultimately, given the material presented in the chapter and considering both sides of the mismatch argument, do you believe that affirmative action has a role to play in university admissions? Do you agree with the Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas (cited in Chapter 5)? Why or why not?