Fluid-Intelligence Affirmative Action

September 13th, 2015 / By

I wrote in a recent post that many affirmative action programs reflect a belief in fixed intelligence. In these programs, faculty assume that affirmative-action admits have less ability than their white peers. That ability, faculty further assume, condemns those admittees to low law school grades. In addition, the presence of less qualified minority students may aggravate the stereotype threat that can impair performance by all minority students–leading to still lower performance overall.

I then, however, explained that a belief in fixed intelligence is mistaken. Intelligence is much more fluid than many individuals understand. Adopting a fluid-intelligence mindset, moreover, can itself enhance achievement. This brings us to the questions: How does a belief in fluid intelligence affect our concept of affirmative action? And how might those beliefs affect the performance of minority students?

Conceptualizing Affirmative Action

When viewed with a fluid-intelligence perspective, affirmative action programs take on a very different character than the one I described earlier. This perspective, first, assumes that college grades and LSAT scores do not fully reflect the existing intelligence of minority students. Stereotype threat, economic disadvantage, cultural signals, and other forces can reduce a minority student’s performance when compared to that of a white student with similar abilities. Thus, the true ability level of an admitted minority student may be higher than that of white students with similar scores.

Second, the fluid-intelligence perspective assumes that the minority student’s capabilities will grow throughout law school. Education expands intellectual ability, and law school offers a particularly rigorous form of education. The minority student, like white students, will be more capable at graduation than at admission.

Finally, and most important, the fluid-intelligence perspective suggests that the minority student has more potential for growth than the white student with similar credentials. Why? Because almost all minority students have been hampered by a lifetime of implicit bias and stereotype threat. They are also more likely than white students to have suffered from low-income backgrounds, few role models, and inadequate schools. All of these factors can reduce the ability that an individual displays in college or on the LSAT, but they don’t erase the potential for achievement gains.

A good affirmative action program assumes that, if we place minority students in an intellectually challenging but supportive environment, and if we eliminate the stereotype threat and implicit bias in that environment, the minority student will make greater intellectual gains than a white student who enters that environment with the same initial achievement level.

The same, of course, can be true for some white students. Some of them suffer from inferior schools, few role models, and stereotype threats of their own. These students will also benefit disproportionately from a challenging, supportive academic environment. The gaps for minority students, however, tend to be much, much larger. The potential for gain, likewise, is much greater.

The Theory In Action

This three-part discussion, I hope, shows that affirmative action programs need not create stereotype threat or harm minority students. On the contrary, properly conceptualized programs recognize the ability of minority students to make greater gains than similarly credentialed classmates.

What, then, holds them back? Why did Alexia Marks and Scott Moss find that minority law students receive lower grades than white classmates with similar entering credentials? The answer almost certainly lies in our failure to create the type of academic environment described above.

I invite law professors and administrators to reflect on their own attitudes. How many of us believe that intelligence is fixed? That belief can negatively affect student learning.

If we believe in fluid intelligence, do we recognize that minority students may be able to make special gains during law school? Do we eagerly embrace that possibility, working to create the conditions that will bring those gains to life? Are we giving students wise feedback that affirms their ability to meet high standards? The outcomes described by Marks and Moss suggest that we’re not doing nearly as much as we could.

To what extent, finally, does our traditional culture hamper the intellectual development of all students–and of minority students in particular? A lack of individualized feedback, strict grading curves, and overt tracking (e.g., election to the primary law review) probably reinforce notions of fixed intelligence.

Are there ways to change these academic traditions? Or to create new approaches that override their impact? Can we cultivate a belief in fluid intelligence–among both students and faculty–that will give more students an opportunity to grow their intelligence? That is one of the challenges facing law schools.


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