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The Mismatch Hypothesis Helps No One

A note to the reader: In this new year, diversifying the STEM fields has perhaps never been more important—for economic health, innovation, and for the health and well-being of America’s diverse communities. As the higher education community is firmly focused on college preparation and completion, we must push to keep equity at the center of all that we do. For my part—and for this blog—I will be pushing the STEM diversity agenda in the most timely way possible. I encourage readers to follow suit by advocating for sound policy and celebrating and replicating those policies and practices that successfully widen the STEM pipeline with new and diverse talent. 

Early last month, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released two briefing reports examining undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), with an emphasis on where minority students attend college.

The two reports—The Educational Effectiveness of Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs] and Encouraging Minority Students in Science Careers—are rich with expert testimony, from a 2006 and 2008 hearing, respectively. The reports further draw on comparative research examining the success of Black students who attended HBCUs versus those enrolled at predominantly White institutions, including the nation’s most selective universities. 

It is from this research—and the way in which it is presented within the two reports—that the commission takes a dangerous leap in its findings and subsequent recommendations.

Both reports support the so-called “mismatch hypothesis,” which asserts that underrepresented minority students with lower than average academic credentials at the nation’s selective colleges and universities, and thus admitted through affirmative action, are at an academic disadvantage relative to their peer group and thus prone to failure.

Not only has the notion of mismatch been repeatedly discounted by numerous empirical studies undertaken by leading researchers and educators, it provides a deeply flawed rationale for keeping underrepresented populations from accessing elite education and advancing their respective communities—both in socioeconomic terms and through ensuring inquiry that advances science, technology, health care, and other pressing concerns for our nation’s whole population.

This type of deficit-minded thinking further impedes institutional accountability by discouraging those universities with the most robust academic resources and equipped laboratories to actively outreach, enroll, and educate this country’s next generation of diverse scientists and engineers.

The mismatch hypothesis not only harms institutions, it harms individual students and their communities. Selective universities confer highly respected degrees and an undergraduate experience that offers unparalleled access and exposure to cutting edge research and some of the world’s most renowned scientific thinkers; including the academic and social capital that comes with these connections.

The academic respect afforded to graduates of the nation’s elite research universities then plays out in graduate school admission and enrollment. Although unfortunate, the majority of elite institutions recruit and enroll a graduate student body that resembles their own undergraduate enrollment. In a similar vein, their postdoctoral researchers and faculty too come from institutions with a similar academic and selective profile as their own.

Finally, the mismatch theory flies in the face of decades-long efforts by dedicated students affairs and undergraduate education staff and faculty at the very elite institutions the reports discourage from admitting minority students with lower academic indices.

As a former admissions officer and lifetime member of the Association of Black Admissions and Financial Aid Officers of the Ivy League and Sister Schools, I worked alongside passionate individuals that cared deeply about the diversification of their respective undergraduate student bodies. With the most holistic applicant review process of any higher education sector, elite institutions—particularly the privates—are not in the business of setting up students to fail. 

The admissions process is not perfect and the institutional environments vary in their systemic and cultural support of underrepresented students, but the diversification of top-tier institutions would not be where it is today—and would not be on track to continue diversifying—without dedicated educators and policymakers that believe in the capacity of all universities to embrace students of all backgrounds.

I do not support—nor do the majority of my colleagues—the claim that those who believe in affirmative action choose to disregard academic preparation. If that were true, then admissions offices wouldn’t consider GPA or standardized test scores at all.

A more appropriate argument is to demand that institutions do a better job of meeting students where they are academically when they arrive on campus. The diversity of high schools—in both quality of teaching and level of scientific exposure—necessitates faculty and student support services that embrace this difference and target a host of individualized services (e.g., tutoring, mentoring, freshman seminars) to students of varying profiles.

Pushing the boundaries of education institutions for the purpose of inclusion is at the core of the civil rights movement. Let us push. And let us expect more of our nation’s system of education and not fault the students educated therein. 

Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.

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