University of Colorado Law Review
Matthew N. Gaertner and Melissa Hart, From Access to Success: Affirmative Action Outcomes in a Class-Based System, 86 U. Colo. L. Rev. 431 (2015), available at https://scholar.law.colorado.edu/faculty-articles/47.
Scholarly discussion about affirmative action policy has been dominated in the past ten years by debates over "mismatch theory'"--the claim that race-conscious affirmative action harms those it is intended to help by placing students who receive preferences among academically superior peers in environments where they will be overmatched and unable to compete. Despite serious empirical and theoretical challenges to this claim in academic circles, mismatch has become widely accepted outside those circles, so much so that the theory played prominently in Justice Clarence Thomas's concurring opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas. This Article explores whether mismatch occurs in the context of a class-conscious affirmative action approach. By moving away from race--which has no logical relationship to mismatch theory--we are able to examine mismatch through a more grounded, less politically laden empirical lens. Our research builds on a previous Article that detailed a class-based affirmative action system implemented at the University of Colorado in Boulder. We examine college outcomes for the beneficiaries of this affirmative action policy, and find that although grades and graduation rates for disadvantaged students lag behind those of their more advantaged peers, the gaps do not widen over time as mismatch theory suggests that they will. Indeed, more often than not, beneficiaries of this policy earn a bachelor's degree. Moreover, Colorado's class-based indices identify some students who perform quite well in college--better than the typical undergraduate--and who would not have been admitted to college without admissions preferences based on class. The Article concludes with implications for affirmative action policy, along with recommendations for supporting academic success for disadvantaged students who have long faced social, economic, and institutional barriers to college access.
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