There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans… to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less­ advanced school… a slower-track school where they do well.

During oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin (in which the Supreme Court just upheld UT Austin’s use of race in their admissions policies), Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments caused quite an uproar. Did a member of the Supreme Court actually say that African Americans aren’t capable of success at competitive colleges? He was drawing from the so-called “mismatch hypothesis,” which suggests that affirmative action places people into positions they can’t handle—that is, that affirmative action could hurt African Americans by placing them in schools where they may not succeed or from which they may not graduate.

A significant amount of academic work debunks “mismatch theory,” deeming it both wrong and “paternalistic.”

Fischer and Massey use the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshman to analyze college outcomes and test the mismatch hypothesis; they find no evidence in its favor. Alon and Tienda use two different longitudinal datasets to run similar analyses, again finding no proof that ethnic minority students fare badly in advanced institutions. Replication results have been consistent over time; Kurlaender and Grodsky piece, for instance, find that students placed in programs considered “out of their league” performed just as well as those in less demanding programs.
In a twist, scholars find that affirmative action may place a different group of people in schools for which they are not equipped. In many schools, particularly prestigious ones, “legacy” students—whose family members graduated from the same school—benefit from affirmative action in admissions. Bowen and Bok show this has disproportionately affected white students, and Massey and Mooney show that legacy students earn lower grades than their peers and have lower graduation rates. If affirmative action is doing a disservice to some students, it is not in the way Justice Scalia suggested.