Mismatch and STEM underenrollment

One of the contentions of the “Mismatch” critique of affirmative action is that, by moving students who benefit from racial preferences in admissions into more highly selective colleges than they would otherwise go, such students are less likely to complete STEM majors than if they had entered colleges where their skills were closer to the median. On the other hand, stronger black students enrolled in HBCUs or in, for example, the Meyerhoff scholars program at UMD-Baltimore , where their skills were above the median, were much more likely to complete STEM degrees. (For example, the students who attended UMD-Baltimore on a Meyerhoff scholarship were ten times as likely to get a STEM PhD and twice as likely to become a doctor as students who were offered the scholarship but turned down the program, most of whom went to more elite schools.)

A quick look at the students in the nationally representative High School Longitudinal Study’s 2009 cohort, followed up in 2016 when they would have been on track to be seniors in college, provides tentative support for this hypothesis. The probability of being a STEM major rises monotonically for both black and non-black students in colleges categorized as unselective or moderatively selective with students’ measured 9th and 10th grade math scores:


For students in colleges categorized as highly selective, however, this relationship disappears for higher achieving black students, who are no longer more likely to complete a STEM degree than lower achieving students.

STEM Majors

Aside from whether grading standards are more or less stringent in the most selective colleges, students are very sensitive to their ability compared to their immediate peers. Even students who would probably benefit (intellectually or financially) from sticking it out in a quantitative major may drop into a non-quantitative major if they feel like they are lagging behind.

My sense is that selective colleges have little incentive to discourage this process. While students who completed quantitative majors may make more money (and contribute slightly more to the college endowment) in the long run, my view is that colleges favor affirmative action because it conveys moral legitimacy to intrinsically elitist institutions. Moving affirmative action’s beneficiaries into more highly politicized and ideological majors and away from quantitative majors has the side benefit of making them more effective advocates for the current system.

(For students with the highest expected long-term earnings, however, Asian and white males, the college has no incentive to make lower-earning humanities degrees more appealing, since that would draw them away from the technical degrees with the highest upside risk, and a portion of these highest earning alumni will be the bread-and-butter of  donations going forward. My guess is this is part of the reason calls to depoliticize English or anthropology programs or otherwise make them less lopsidedly female fall so flat.)

10 thoughts on “Mismatch and STEM underenrollment

  1. I have some experience with the UMBC Meyerhoff program, and know several people who have gone through it. Not only are the kids generally bright, but the amount of support they get from the school is amazing. They’re a small cohort who attend a summer session together before school even starts to bond with each other. Based on what I’ve seen, I doubt it’s something that would scale well. FWIW, it’s no longer exclusively African-American.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that esprit d’corps is a or the major likely reason for its success, but you have to ask why much wealthier institutions don’t have remotely comparable results. with similar students


  2. The Meyerhoff program works because students must have at minimum of 600 on the math portion of the SAT, putting them in the top 50th percentile of SAT math scores at UMBC. A score of 670 would be in the top 25th percentile. That’s impossible to do at wealthy elite schools because most students in the top 25th percentile have a perfect SAT score.

    Xavier University Louisiana’s premed program has the same support network as the Meyerhoff program, doesn’t screen students, and has been praised for years for having the among the highest number of black students admitted to medical school. Apparently there was a lawsuit or an ethics review, because now Xavier’s website acknowledges that most of their students that apply to allopathic medical schools do not get accepted.

    2017 154 applied 54 accepted — 35% acceptance rate
    2016 125 applied 38 accepted — 30%
    2015 127 applied 33 accepted — 30%
    2014 109 applied 31 accepted — 29%
    2013 108 applied 34 accepted — 31%

    Xavier should have both a minimum required SAT score for all future premed majors and a “highly suggested” score.



  3. I’m trying to find a post you made last year, where you used the story of Alice in Wonderland running in place as fast as she could to stay in the same spot, at the end of the excerpt was a chart showing $ spent on education and test scores. I can’t find the post anymore, did you take it down?


      1. I used the aforementioned chart in a debate with a co-worker, and he pointed out that the math scores at least had gone up (link below). We were debating the efficacy of school funding (he was pro increase, I am ‘meh’), but neither of us had any reasonable ideas as to why math scores have gone up but not reading, other than perhaps the nature of the different types of learning.



      2. They haven’t gone up for Grade 12 though.

        I think it’s reasonable to suppose that elementary math instruction was bad enough until recently that you could make reasonable improvements with more attention/focus, but reading instruction was already decent; alternatively, you could argue that kids were reading more complex texts outside of school that balances out any gains from better instruction. (Eg, I was looking at some 60s X-Men reprints I gave my son, and the textual difficulty/vocabulary was definitely higher than in recent comics.)



      3. As good enough explanation as any, considering. It is most certainly the case that more was expected of earlier generations of students, and I’m sure you’ve seen the grammar/reading books from a century ago for kids that 2018 kids would struggle with. Then again, access to education was more limited. Perhaps we are educating more people but at a lower common denominator.


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