It is generally dangerous to advise minorities against matriculating at elite colleges — which also tend to be historically white — because of the sense that increased competition can compromise their success, said Lee Baker, Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African and African American Studies at Duke University, at a lecture Wednesday.
Baker analyzed several arguments of the recent mismatch theory, which argues that affirmative action doesn’t actually help its intended beneficiaries because they may struggle academically at elite schools instead of enrolling at less competitive institutions where they might be able to excel.
He noted that one argument put forward by mismatch theorists is the argument that affirmative action wastes large numbers of good students because many minority students who enroll at top universities end up switching their majors to sociology or anthropology because they feel they are unable to compete in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
The mismatch theorists argue that minority students should pay more attention to colleges such as historically black colleges, which have been serving minorities well for many years, Baker explained, but he rebutted that historically white colleges have recently improved.
When discussing affirmative action, Baker said the importance of institutional yield should not be forgotten. He noted that black students who attend historically black colleges are much more likely to go into STEM fields, noting that while 10 percent of all African-American college students attend historically black colleges, 40 percent of the African-American college population majoring in STEM fields attend these colleges. However, he also noted that African-American college students at elite universities such as Duke and Harvard are more likely to get postgraduate degrees in STEM fields than African-American students who attended historically black colleges.
Mismatch theorists have argued that affirmative action may result in students being put in classes where they are underprepared and can therefore start to feel helpless, Baker explained. He argued, however, that these theorists draw their data exclusively from science and business courses, and added that STEM students who decide to withdraw from their majors and choose more humanistic disciplines should not be considered a loss.
“At the heart of the liberal arts and sciences experience is exploring an array of different fields while exploring one’s intellectual passion,” he said.
He added, however, that many minority students with less strong academic backgrounds may want to go to schools where they are able to feel competitive. Being perceived as a leader facilitates active engagement in learning, Baker said, adding that a discrepancy in preparation is especially significant in science and technology fields, where students must master the introductory coursework in order to progress to the more advanced subject matter.
Baker compared college enrollment decisions to athletics, saying that students should ultimately decide to go where they feel most comfortable.
“Is it better to sit on Coach K’s bench getting limited playing time and training with the best players and coaches in the country, or is it better to attend a less competitive school where your playing time during the first year is guaranteed and the student becomes a star?” he asked. “Again, it comes down to fit.”
Baker’s lecture, titled “The Top 2%: Race, Identity and Science Education,” was at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Aaron Burr Hall.