Monday 30 November 2015

Does affirmative action cause mental illness in black and Hispanic students?

A reader asks me to comment on a post with the above headline, so this is a quick note with a few thoughts. The link is given below, and that itself links to a New York Times article, which I reproduce in case you want to start with that article.

The true answer is that I have absolutely no idea whether affirmative action causes mental illness in black and Hispanic students. Of course, I have many ideas which have been generated by the question, but I can’t answer it because many of the parts required for a good answer are not available to me, and I don’t want to hunt them down at the moment. For example, I would have to research affirmative action generally, its prevalence in US colleges, its prevalence in the colleges currently experiencing protests versus those not protesting, college SAT entrance score requirements, some base rates of mental illness in college student by race, and general US college dropout rates. The protesting students may have excellent grades, and I cannot determine whether they gained entry through affirmative action just by looking at them, though I can gain some impression of their abilities and character by watching the videos of their protests. Those brief glimpses of behaviour may not be representative, but they can be very informative.

The plausibility of the thesis (affirmative action causes mental illness in its beneficiaries)  is only moderately in its favour, because psychology leads easily to ad hoc explanations, of which the most popular would be: placed in a college where the course content reveals them to be clearly less able than Asian and White students, Black and Hispanic student feel demoralized, depressed and resentful. They attribute their personal failings to institutional shortcomings, and (like many weak students everywhere) complain: “I’m bright but the exam was unfair/I wasn’t taught properly”. Before jumping to that conclusion (which may be right, but is not proved right just by being plausible) it is more important to have a knowledge of the territory. Here are some general findings in the UK, simply to show my thought processes. Dropout rates in British universities are closely related to university quality: better universities have lower dropout rates. That is not surprising: they get much brighter students, far more capable of completing a university course.

You need, on average, 608 UCAS points to get into the University of Cambridge, making it the most competitive university in the UK. Understandably, only 0.35% of students drop out.

Only about 1% drop out of the Russell Group, either because their school exam marks flattered them and they lack ability, or more likely because of psychological problems: loneliness, home-sickness, anxiety and depression.

Lesser institution have higher dropout rates, roughly 15%. They get less able students, and probably offer them less personal attention. Also, the degrees they confer will themselves confer relatively little occupational advantage, so dropping out may be sensible if there are jobs available. Someone who gets three years of job experience may do better than those who hang on attempting to be studious. There are also differences according to the courses taken, with prized medical education places having a low dropout.

College life is great but has drawbacks. Losing parental and school peer support is one aspect, but there is also the unsettling change for many that they move from being top of the class to being close to the bottom of the university. At a real university you will find many persons brighter than yourself, and many, many persons more knowledgeable than yourself. Unsettling. (I still haven’t got over the shock of finding that other students had read Franz Kafka, and some had made notes about his writings). Finding yourself not as precious as you thought you were can be depressing. If you were let in on some sort of racial, religious or sociological quota you may struggle to compete with those judged only on ability and accomplishments. If the gap between the quota entrants and the others is big, they will be seen a queue-jumpers. That will be true on average, however hurtful.

College attendance aside, lower intelligence is related to more psychological disturbance anyway, so weaker colleges will have more students with those sorts of problems.

Does college life cause mental illness? Well, only in the sense that life imposes demands on people, and strain develops if external stress is not met with inner resilience or elasticity. Colleges are intellectually demanding, but also empowering. Learning makes you better able to understand life, and slightly better able to understand yourself. You achieve the beginnings of mastery of some basic techniques, and begin to correct your many mistakes. Compared with struggling to find and keep a job, college life is relatively easy, and much easier than bringing up children.


Psychologists haven’t actually got a Young’s Modulus for human beings because, ahem, Psychology is a young science, and has been for a century, but the general predictors of psychological breakdown are known: being a woman is one of the most important, but being neurotic, less intelligent and less well educated are also important, as are life-events, better known as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, bringing strains and grievous losses.

My opinion is that college entrance should be based on academic ability. Standardised testing is the best way of determining this: well-validated general intelligence tests and cognitively demanding scholastic ability tests. g-loaded is best. Anyone who gets in on another basis (including Daddy paying for a University Library) will experience some strain because they cannot keep up with the others, though the stresses will be much less than working as a nurse in a busy hospital ward. Colleges don’t cause mental illness, but vulnerable students may find them taxing. Taking good care of students is both kind and wise, because suicide is a preventable risk.

So, full confession now, when Keele University students had a protest in the sixties I did not participate, even though I was a victim of their “no women in the bedroom after 6 pm rule”. This was not surprising, because virtually nobody took part except the usual suspects, looked at with mild amusement by the majority. The university authorities were benign if paternalistic, and the protestors were seen as far too self-important. They submitted a list of mild suggestions and cleaned up the offices before leaving, to the great satisfaction of their Class Comrades in the Revolution, the university cleaning ladies.

But now, in the spirit of the time, how about my feelings about the current US University protests, as seen in a few videos

Wow, what bad manners!


  1. I watched the news on the telly during the Paris events of '68. I recognised the students as just another bunch of intellectually frivolous twerps but was most impressed that the French authorities took them seriously, with General de Gaulle even fleeing to a French army base in Germany. Spank their botties and send them to bed.

  2. Sport does not build character, it reveals it.

  3. (i) tenuously connected?

    (ii0 Doc, your site is crashing my router. I think it may be the picture of the 3rd birthday cake that is the problem. Can your IT elves sort it out?

  4. 1) Interesting association between low ability and high scholastic achievement!
    2) Will see if I can find the problem, but have no elves.

  5. "My opinion is that college entrance should be based on academic ability"

    Absolutely, but then some minorities will be over-represented (everyone will notice but none will remark) and some will be under-represented. In a sane society that might not matter, but that's not the situation we find ourselves in.

  6. It's pretty interesting opinions! Thanks for your sharing, I almost agree with you. Some days later I've found interesting post, maybe smb likes it too!:)
    Lot's itspiration for new and useful articles!:)