The educational mismatch that results from the large admissions preferences that some colleges bestow on minority applicants is getting more publicity lately. As Science Careers reported a while back, researchers have blamed mismatch for lowering the numbers of minority students who major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. That is because, this argument goes, students who go on to earn STEM degrees almost always enter college with credentials placing them in the top third of the admitted class. Students admitted with large preferences, on the other hand, enter with credentials placing them near the bottom of their admitted class, and often struggle to succeed in the more difficult STEM classes. Attending the more competitive college can therefore deprive an able young person of the chance to succeed at a science major.
On 24 June, the mismatch debate got a major media boost when Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court mentioned it in his concurring opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas, a major case testing affirmative action policies. The next day, sociologists Michal Kurlaender of the University of California, Davis and Eric Grodsky of the University of Wisconsin, Madison issued a study (scheduled for publication in the journal Sociology of Education) that, according to Inside Higher Ed, "questioned just the kind of analysis" that Justice Thomas employed.
The study shows that many mismatched students at the University of California, Berkeley, were successful at earning degrees. It does not address, however, the question most interesting to those seeking to recruit underrepresented minorities to science: Are mismatched students less likely to major in science or engineering than if they were attending a school where their entering credentials placed them high in their class? Because the paper does not say which majors the mismatched students chose, it is impossible to tell.