Wednesday, July 03, 2002

Racial Preferences in Medical School Admissions

Most people are aware that colleges and universities grant preferences to blacks and hispanics in the admissions process. These practices are currently being challenged in court, and disparate rulings at the appellate level virtually guarantee that the issue will be decided by the Supreme Court at some point. Plaintiffs have pointed out that affirmative action has gotten to the point that black applicants, for example, are often 10 to 20 times more likely than whites to gain admission to some major universities. Even in these cases the affirmative action programs still have their defenders.

What is not generally known is that medical schools use the same types of affirmative action programs with the same results. Medical school admissions committees often reach well down into the pool of black and Hispanic applicants to admit students whose qualifications are well below those of rejected whites. A recent study of medical school admissions by the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) bears this out. They found that the average GPA of admitted whites was 3.64. The corresponding median for blacks was 3.23, for Hispanics 3.30, and for Asians 3.63. On the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), the median score for whites was 37, for blacks 31, for Hispanics about 34, and for Asians 38. In short, Asian and white students had the highest academic qualifications, followed by Hispanics and blacks, respectively.

As John Perrazo reports in Front Page Magazine:

The extent of these preferences is nothing short of shocking. In 1996, for instance, black applicants were 19 times likelier than similarly qualified whites to be admitted to Georgia Medical College. That same year blacks were 23 times likelier than academically equivalent whites to be admitted to SUNY Brooklyn, and a year later blacks were 30 times likelier than comparable whites to be admitted to the University of Washington... Notably, Asians were consistently less likely to be admitted than were whites of equivalent credentials.

The CEO researchers also calculated – in terms of absolute percentages – the likelihood of admission for black, white, Hispanic, and Asian applicants with the same test scores and grades. Again, the results were startling. For example, consider those students with MCAT scores of 30 and GPAs of 3.25. At the Medical College of Georgia in 1996, black applicants with such credentials had a 51 percent chance of admission. For Hispanics, whites, and Asians, the corresponding figures were 14 percent, 5 percent, and 2 percent. At Michigan State College of Human Medicine in 1999, black applicants with the aforementioned credentials had a 43 percent chance of admission. The corresponding numbers for other groups were: 26 percent for Hispanics, 5 percent for whites, and 3 percent for Asians. For similarly qualified applicants to SUNY Brooklyn in 1999, the likelihood of admission was 25 percent for blacks, 13 percent for Hispanics, 3 percent for whites, and 3 percent for Asians. At the University of Washington in 1997, the numbers were 61 percent for blacks, 20 percent for Hispanics, 5 percent for whites, and 4 percent for Asians.

One wonders whether similar preferences operate at other types of schools responsible for training people who's skill and knowledge is a matter of life and death to their fellow citizens. What about commercial pilot training, for example?

It is difficult to be certain about whether or not such differences in qualifications based on standardized tests and GPA's translate to differences in performance at the bedside for doctors. There is no good way to measure the performance of doctors with any accuracy beyond the standardized written tests done at various points in medical training. There results of these examinations are generally in agreement with the MCAT, but this may not be that relevant to practice.

In fact, there has been a movement in medical schools over the past decade to reduce the emphasis of standardized written exams in the student evaluation process in favor of more subjective evaluation methods. This approch, among other things, provides considerable wiggle room to the medical school faculty concerned about disparities in the performance of certain ethnic groups.

On large obstacle looms that prevents schools from discarding standardized examinations entirely, however, and that is the medical licensing examination. The US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is a standardized written examination that tests the student's mastery of medical knowledge, and, up to now, it remains the one reliable index of overall competence of graduating doctors that has not been fiddled too much by social engineers. It is this that renders the admissions qualifications less of a concern for those worried by the drop in standards. All students, including minorities, must pass the USMLE or else they cannot practice medicine.

Thus, one suspects that for most things the performance of minority students is good enough for the things that doctors do. However, it begs the question of whether or not it is reasonable to disregard qualifications and standards to this degree in pursuit of affirmative action goals.