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Attending elite colleges benefits even those less academically prepared

July 16, 2013

University of California-eligible students with weaker high school grades and test scores typically fared about as well, after four years in college, as higher-ranking students who were admitted, according to a new University of California, Davis, study.

The study on a specific group of students admitted under special circumstances in 2004 shows that students who are mismatched, or go to universities where fellow students have a higher record of achievement than they do, are not poor academic performers, researchers said.

“Opponents of affirmative action often invoke a 'mismatch' claim, suggesting that students who are far enough away from the average achievement level (typically based on standardized test scores) are mismatched with the institution, and are likely to experience a host of problems," said Michal Kurlaender, a UC Davis associate professor in the School of Education and a co-author of the study. "In the data we have, we just don’t find that to be the case.”

Researchers followed 491 students for four years at three selective UC campuses -- UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego. The researchers compared the group’s grades, accumulated credits and likelihood of dropping out to two other groups.

One group used for comparison was students with higher grade-point averages and test scores coming out of high school and attending the three most competitive UC campuses, or campuses that had an average acceptance rate of only 30 percent in 2004. The other group chose to attend less competitive UC campuses, or those schools with average acceptance rates of 59 percent.

The grade-point average and credits accrued in college by the lesser-qualified students were  “almost identical” to their better prepared peers, the study found. Furthermore, the lower-ranking students who attended elite colleges were much more likely to stay in college than their counterparts who went to other UC campuses.

Only 13 percent of so-called mismatched students left by their fourth year, compared to 20 percent of otherwise similar students attending less competitive UC campuses.

“These students were clearly at the bottom of the UC-eligible admit pool,” said Kurlaender. “They had substantially lower grades and test scores than regular admits and, since they were not initially admitted, probably did not have other things about them that admissions officers saw to counter-balance their academic deficits. Yet, they still succeeded.” The study did not find any significant differences when looking at students’ race or ethnicity.

Until recently, UC sought to admit all students it regarded as “UC eligible,” though not necessarily to the campus of their choice. To be eligible, students must earn a minimum grade-point average on a specific set of high school courses and achieve certain scores on standardized tests.

But in 2004, because of budgetary constraints, fewer eligible freshmen were admitted than usual. Under a special arrangement, those rejected students were offered a guaranteed transfer from a community college at a later date to a specific UC campus.

Circumstances changed when funding for student enrollments was restored before the fall session began. Subsequently, those deferred students were all granted immediate admission to the campus promised them in the transfer agreement. This unusual set of events created a “natural experiment” for the researchers to look at the differences in academic performance among different groups of UC students.

Kurlaender suggests that their findings are particularly important for understanding the case against affirmative action.

“The plaintiffs in the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s Fischer case claimed that the beneficiaries of affirmative action are actually among the victims because of mismatch. Our study shows just the opposite; mismatched students are more likely to persist in college at elite UCs and do not pay a penalty in terms of grades for doing so.”

The study is co-authored by Eric Grodsky, associate professor of sociology at University of Wisconsin, Madison. Publication is forthcoming in “Sociology of Education.” Read the paper at: http://tinyurl.com/nteaksk

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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