The mismatch effect happens when a school extends to a student such a large admissions preference — sometimes because of a student’s athletic prowess or legacy connection to the school, but usually because of the student’s race — that the student finds himself in a class where he has weaker academic preparation than nearly all of his classmates. The student who would flourish at, say, Wake Forest or the University of Richmond, instead finds himself at Duke, where the professors are not teaching at a pace designed for him — they are teaching to the “middle” of the class, introducing terms and concepts at a speed that is unnerving even to the best-prepared student. …

Research on the mismatch problem was almost non-existent until the mid-1990s; it has developed rapidly in the past half-dozen years, especially among labor economists. To cite just a few examples of the findings:

-Black college freshmen are more likely to aspire to science or engineering careers than are white freshmen, but mismatch causes blacks to abandon these fields at twice the rate of whites.
-Blacks who start college interested in pursuing a doctorate and an academic career are twice as likely to be derailed from this path if they attend a school where they are mismatched.
-About half of black college students rank in the bottom 20 percent of their classes (and the bottom 10 percent in law school).
-Black law school graduates are four times as likely to fail bar exams as are whites; mismatch explains half of this gap.
-Interracial friendships are more likely to form among students with relatively similar levels of academic preparation; thus, blacks and Hispanics are more socially integrated on campuses where they are less academically mismatched.