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Op-Ed

Do race preferences help students?

There's evidence that many students don't thrive in colleges for which they're far less prepared than their fellow students.

October 07, 2012|By Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr

In many realms, it is taken for granted that consumers need good information: Home mortgages, cars and even cereal boxes come with extensive disclosures. It is hard to think of a major investment — especially one of such crucial lifelong importance — in which the consumers (students and their families) have so little information available about what exactly they are getting. Universities are ranked by outlets like U.S. News & World Report according to their prestige. But there is little information available that measures how schools actually serve their students.

In particular, those admitted with far lower scores or grades than the majority of students at the school need to know whether — and by how much — attending a more elite school is likely to hurt their grades and class rank. They should be able to gauge their chances of sticking with a tough major, graduating and passing licensing exams. Under current practices, there is simply no way to tell how students' qualifications on entry affect their academic success, and so students are left to rely on those alluring national rankings.

Requiring disclosures and transparency would empower students to make intelligent choices while still permitting colleges — at least for now — to continue offering large racial preferences. If the data tend to confirm that mismatched students fare poorly, then at least some students will shun preferences that are likely to land them out of their depth, and universities will probably work harder than they do now to provide effective academic support to struggling students. It would serve both skeptics and defenders of preferences to have the information needed to determine when, and how well, preference policies actually work.

Richard Sander, a law professor at UCLA, and Stuart Taylor Jr., a journalist and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, are the authors of the book "Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It."

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