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Do racial preferences help those who are on the receiving end of them? Studies of the University of California system before and after it banned racial preferences suggest the answer is no. As Stuart Taylor and Richard Sander document in their book, Mismatch, graduation rates for minorities improved after affirmative action ended. Why? Because schools are in the habit of admitting students who are less qualified than their peers simply in order to make their catalogue cover look more like a rainbow.

And the students themselves know they are getting into schools that are too hard. Take a recent profile in the Washington Post of a student who graduated Dunbar High School in Washington DC and went on to Georgetown University:

A year ago, in the days before his graduation from the District’s Dunbar High School, [Johnathon] Carrington worried that his education in the city’s public schools had not prepared him for Georgetown’s academic rigor. “I don’t think I’m going to fail everything,” he said at the time. “But I think I’m going to be a bit behind.”

He was right. The quick pace and heavy workload of his first two Georgetown classes last summer were a “wake-up call,” he said, and only intensified during the next two semesters. Math, which he thought was a personal strength, has proved tough. Time management has been a hurdle, so he enrolled in an economics class this summer to lighten his load in the fall.

And he doesn’t want to talk about his grade-point average.

“I was, of course, disappointed in myself,” Carrington said. “It really does affect your confidence when you’re doing bad in school and you’re not used to it. I know I’ve got to do a lot of things different this year.”

The story goes on to discuss the culture shock that many young minorities from poor backgrounds experience when they attend Georgetown. They don’t see a lot of people who look like them or understand their background, etc. But before we worry about these softer factors, let’s stipulate for a minute that most Georgetown students do not worry before they start school that they are unqualified and few students at elite universities find the workload to be a “wake-up call.” That’s because the high schools that graduate these students are hard. They make students do hours of homework a night, in addition to balancing other activities. They are enrolled in AP classes so they have a pretty good idea of what college content looks like.

We are dropping minority kids, who would probably achieve success at a slightly less prestigious school, into the deep end of the pool. Even the people from their own families and neighborhoods expect them to fail. The article chronicles how people keep asking Carrington’s mother whether he’s dropped out yet. Perhaps this sounds obnoxious but they’re probably asking because so many do.

Nor is it simply because of some insurmountable cultural barrier. Carrington expected that he wasn’t going to be prepared for the work. That affects someone’s entire attitude and sense of self-worth. And then his fears turned out to be true? I hope Georgetown manages to help Carrington finish. But if he doesn’t, his high school should share the blame with the university’s admissions office.

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