Minority Students and Research Universities:
to Overcome the 'Mismatch'
Published in Chronicle of Higher Ed, 2009-03-27
by RICHARD A. TAPIA
A controversial theory much in the news lately claims that
affirmative action is often unfair to the very students it is intended to help.
Called the "mismatch" theory, it suggests that underrepresented minority
students are more likely to leave science, math, and engineering when, because
of affirmative action, they attend colleges for which they are unprepared.
The theory contrasts that outcome with the success that
minority students experience at less-rigorous colleges, especially
minority-serving institutions, and suggests that those students would be better
served by less-competitive institutions, where they can be more successful.
But the mismatch theory is terribly flawed — in fact, it could
set underrepresented minorities back 40 years in science participation and
achievements. I say that based on my own experience as a minority scholar and my
many years working with minority students at Rice University.
I have been a mathematician at Rice since 1970. I received a
B.A. in mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1961 and
a Ph.D. in mathematics from UCLA in 1967. I have received numerous awards for my
accomplishments as a mathematician: I was elected to the National Academy of
Engineering and appointed to the National Science Board by President Bill
Clinton, and at Rice I have been promoted to the position of university
professor, of which there have been only six named in the history of the
institution. Yet at many junctures, my life could have taken a different
I was born in Los Angeles to parents who emigrated from
Mexico. I attended a below-average high school in Los Angeles, and because my
teachers and counselors did not encourage me to go to college, even though I had
demonstrated strong mathematical talent, I started to work after graduation.
When a co-worker insisted that I go to college, I began at community
When it came time to transfer, two of my math professors
strongly directed me away from less-selective four-year colleges and toward
UCLA. Little did I know how crucial to my career that advice would be. As an
undergraduate there, I saw other students with less mathematical talent going to
graduate school, so I went to graduate school. Then, after receiving my Ph.D, I
was guided by David Sanchez, the only underrepresented-minority faculty member
in the mathematics department, to faculty positions at the University of
Wisconsin at Madison, Stanford University, and, finally, Rice. Today I can
easily say that I owe my success to my education at a top research
While at Rice, I have served as dissertation director or
co-director for many successful minority doctoral recipients in science,
technology, engineering, and mathematics (the STEM fields). I have also taught
many minority undergraduates. In both cases, some of those students, perhaps
most, would fit the pattern of the mismatch theory, entering Rice less prepared
than most of their fellow students were.
Some scholars believe that steering such minority students to
less-challenging institutions, where they can be more successful, is better for
them and for the nation because doing so would increase the numbers of those
receiving degrees in science and engineering. Rice and other selective research
universities recruit some of the nation's most capable minority students, who
enter intending to pursue careers in science, math, or engineering, and then we
lose disproportionate numbers of them to other disciplines.
But numbers of degrees alone are not a good measure of
success. Underrepresented minorities must be competitive with the overall
population. Students at minority-serving institutions, for example, speak warmly
of how confident and supported they feel in their experiences, and research
universities should learn from those colleges and universities how to nurture
that kind of confidence. But Ph.D.'s produced at minority-serving institutions
will not become faculty members at top-tier research universities, which choose
their professors from those educated at other top-tier research universities.
Steering capable students to less-selective institutions puts a cap on their
potential achievements and serves only to perpetuate the stereotype that they
are less able than other students to succeed in STEM fields.
Consider three systems that prepare minority students:
elementary and secondary schools, minority-serving colleges and universities,
and research institutions. For different reasons, none of them adequately
promote equitable representation in science, math, and engineering. But solving
the problems of the first two systems would require transforming urban schools
that educate the vast majority of underrepresented students, and bringing
minority-serving institutions up to the academic excellence of research
institutions — both overwhelming tasks.
The most viable solution is to focus on the third system: to
admit underrepresented minority students in larger numbers to science and
engineering programs at the nation's leading research institutions and then
support them in whatever they need to be successful. To do that, we who work at
those institutions must evaluate our admissions criteria to determine whether
they are excluding people with the ability to succeed. The traditional use of
standardized-test scores, guided by the belief in the predictive power of scores
at the upper level of the scale, is one of the worst enemies of underrepresented
minority students. I have seen many of those students, especially Hispanic
women, who entered with modest SAT scores (albeit the best scores in their high
schools), graduate from Rice with honors.
My experience has been that the high end of the test-score
scale has little or no predictive value. For example, there is essentially no
benefit in favoring a student with a combined SAT score of 1500 over one with a
combined score of, say, 1300. The same can be said for a graduate student whose
GRE score is in the 95th percentile versus one whose score is only in the 85th
percentile. But I have never seen an undergraduate student at Rice succeed in
math, science, or engineering with a combined SAT score below 900. That is, I
have found much more predictive information at the low end of the scale than at
the high end.
Thus, at Rice, in both graduate and undergraduate admissions,
we have successfully adopted a threshold approach toward standardized-test
scores. We pick a threshold score, determined from years of experience in
working with all students, at which students will be successful. We deem those
students with scores significantly above the threshold to be equivalent, as far
as the test score goes, and the score is dismissed and admission decisions are
guided by other factors. We look at students with scores near the threshold
value with extra care. And we don't accept students with scores significantly
below the threshold.
To retain underrepresented-minority students, we have
developed a program, supported by the National Science Foundation, that builds a
strong community among them and faculty members. Key components of it
Senior administrators, especially science and engineering
deans, actively endorse and support the program to promote faculty
Respected faculty members in the STEM fields act as mentors,
advisers, role models, and advocates.
High standards and expectations encourage all students to
perform at their best.
Following those guidelines, we have produced probably the
country's largest number of underrepresented minority doctoral recipients in
science, math, and engineering. The National Science Foundation informed Rice in
1986 that in 1985 and 1986, eight underrepresented minority Ph.D.'s in
mathematics were produced in the country, and Rice had produced four — or half
the total. That statistic was bittersweet; sweet because we were number one in
the country, but bitter because the number was so incredibly small. And the
situation since then has not improved nearly enough.
The mathematics departments at Arizona State University,
Cornell University, and the University of Iowa also produce minority Ph.D.'s at
a high rate. Again, each student's success comes from a champion in the faculty,
strong commitment, and aggressive support. At the undergraduate level, because
of the Texas "Top 10 Percent" rule, the mathematics department at the University
of Texas at Austin has the highest proportion of underrepresented-minority
mathematics majors — slightly more than 26 percent — of any top-tier research
university. With innovative support programs, it retains minority students
through graduation at a rate above the majority-student rate.
Three other exemplary programs are at Harvard University, for
faculty searches; the University of California at Berkeley, for undergraduate
support; and the Georgia Institute of Technology, for promotion and tenure. More
leading research institutions should learn from those models and strongly
encourage underrepresented minority students to enter STEM fields.
A two-tiered society is certainly not healthful for America.
With support and caring, underrepresented minorities can succeed at the best
universities in the country. Indeed, many of us have. And more of us can.
Richard A. Tapia is a mathematician and professor of
computational and applied mathematics at Rice University.
Volume 55, Issue
29, Page A72