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The Mismatch Effect: Does Affirmative Action Care Harm its Beneficiaries?

Some say that the mismatch effect causes affirmative action to harm the very people it is intended to benefit. What is the mismatch effect and does it exist?

The debate on race-based affirmative action in college admissions often focuses on grand narratives of systematic and historical inequities and how to redress them. While those are important questions, there is a more fundamental question that must first be answered: does affirmative action actually benefit those it advantages?

Though the obvious answer may seem an emphatic "yes," proponents of the mismatch effect say it's not so simple. In short, the theory of a mismatch effect suggests that affirmative action enables certain students to enter more selective academic institutions that are too academically competitive and demanding for them, leading to harms such as worse educational experience and a lower chance of graduating than if they had entered a less demanding institution. The mismatch theory sees college admissions as a process where acceptances and rejections guide students toward colleges where they can thrive academically and away from colleges ill-suited for them. Affirmative action could disrupt this system.

Some proponents of the mismatch effect, such as Thomas Sowell, have extended it to propose a potential cascade effect. If students enter institutions through affirmative action, they are being “poached” from the less selective institutions they might otherwise have gone to, which now face a reduced student body. If those schools in turn relax admissions standards to make up the shortfall, they have “poached” students from even less selective institutions, who may in turn repeat the cycle to maintain student numbers. If the mismatch effect exists, then this cycle results in harmful mismatches between students and institutions throughout the entire tertiary educational system. While affirmative action tends to be most significant at selective institutions compared to institutions that are less selective in general anyway, the cascade effect suggests that potential negative impacts of affirmative action could radiate throughout the entire system of tertiary education.

Whether the mismatch effect and cascade effect actually exist has been extensively researched empirically, yet remains fairly controversial. The academic literature is a mix of studies: some supporting a mismatch effect, some rejecting it. Furthermore, because there are a variety of ways to measure potential mismatch harms — studies have examined career satisfaction, graduate rates, post-graduation income, class rank, college grades, switching out of difficult majors, etc. — it is difficult to come to a single overarching conclusion about a mismatch effect.

While the recent Supreme Court case, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, has found against race-based affirmative action in college admissions on constitutional grounds, it seems unlikely that the affirmative action debate will end. Attention to the potential for a mismatch effect and further empirical research will do much to inform this important national conversation.

A sources list can be found here.

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