This past weekend, the New York Times ran a lengthy article titled "A Prescription for More Black Doctors," which examines how tiny Xavier University in New Orleans manages to send more black students to medical school than any other college in the country, including the elite Ivies and the largest state schools. It describes Xavier's unusually structured pre-medical curriculum and supportive system for making sure that students know what they ought to be doing to get into medical school at every step of the process. Although these programs sound admirable, Xavier's approach hardly comes across as revolutionary, leaving the reader to wonder if something may be missing from the picture.
That something is the growing body of research into the academic "mismatch" created by racial preferences in college admissions. Because it is common for African-American students to receive preferential treatment in college admissions, they disproportionately wind up at colleges and universities where their entering credentials are below those of the average student's. Students interested in scientific and technical subjects—including pre-meds—often struggle because of this credentials gap and wind up switching to majors where grading is typically easier. But many of those students might have stuck with pre-med (or another scientific field) if they'd been at a college or university where their entering credentials were average or above-average. Or, to use a concrete example, the research indicates that a student with a 1200 SAT has a much better chance of continuing in science at a school where the median student also had a 1200 on the SAT than if she is at a college or university where the median student scored over 1400.
The phenomenon is not unique to African-Americans. Students who receive preferential treatment because of legacy status are also disproportionately likely to leave science for something easier.
The secret of Xavier's success therefore likely is not its special academic support programs and highly dedicated faculty, commendable as they are. Rather, its real secret may be that it, like other historically black colleges and universities, doesn't use affirmative action in admissions. By obscuring this information from its readers, the NYT has hurt, not helped, the public debate on how to raise the numbers of African-Americans in medicine and the other learned professions.
The mismatch research may play a role in the upcoming Fisher v. Texas case to be decided later this year. This amicus brief by Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow discusses how the mismatch research fits with the relevant case law on narrow tailoring. Note that although I work for Gail Heriot at the Civil Rights Commission and have previously worked with her on mismatch-related projects both in and out of the Commission, I was not involved with the preparation of this brief.