Goodbye, Affirmative Action?

A Supreme Court case has colleges considering how to stay diverse if race-based admissions is axed

Under affirmative action, Kahlenberg says, "universities assemble classes with fairly wealthy students of all races. As long as universities are allowed to use race in admissions, they are unlikely to pay attention to socioeconomic status. Rather than use race as a proxy for disadvantage, a fair system would give the preference based on disadvantage itself. This way, we add economic diversity alongside racial and ethnic diversity."

Kahlenberg co-authored a new Century Foundation report that shows economics-based affirmative action has created diverse campuses at schools where the outlawing of racial preferences initially produced a drop in minority enrollment. UT Austin, University of Washington, and University of Florida, among others, looked at parental income, personal hardship, family responsibilities, status as a first-generation college student, and average SAT score at the applicant's high school. This focus on economic factors has produced at least as much racial and ethnic diversity as racial preferences had in the past.

Richer universities such as Columbia are in the best position to put economics-based affirmative action to work, says Kahlenberg, since they can provide financial aid for students who need it. Yet they have preferred race-based plans, which skew toward admitting more higher-scoring middle- and upper-class students of color: 86 percent of all African-American students admitted to the most selective universities, a subset of whom get in without affirmative action, are from middle- to upper-class families.

One of these pencils is not like the others.
Petro Perutskyy
One of these pencils is not like the others.

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In fact, according to Bollinger, Columbia reviews all applications for many factors, including socioeconomics and race. But he warns that looking at socioeconomics alone will not result in a diverse class: "Most people who are from lower socioeconomic standing in the society are white, and if you look only at socioeconomic status of the family, then you will more likely admit a white student than an African-American, Hispanic, or Native American student."

"If your goal is racial representation, then using race is far more efficient," Kahlenberg says. "My argument is that we should be concerned about economic diversity as well, but universities would have to admit some low-income white and Asian students along the way, and that's not something they're interested in doing."

One program that could serve as a model for economics-based affirmative action is New York state's Educational Opportunity Program, which was established in 1967. EOP admits and provides support for economically disadvantaged students who show potential but who do not have all the credentials for admittance to a particular university.

Stony Brook University EOP Director Cheryl Hamilton defines potential as a student who, despite disadvantages, shows the desire to succeed academically. Some EOP students, for example, graduate at the top of their class, but their high schools are under-resourced and might not have provided college-prep work. Hamilton attributes the program's success (its six-year graduation rate is 78 percent) to a structured tutor program and intensive academic counseling that focuses on the unique needs of every student.

Race is not a factor in being admitted to EOP, and yet the program creates diversity because it takes the same approach in reviewing applicants that Kahlenberg advocates. The program looks at extenuating circumstances in the lives of its applicants, including their economic status, whether they attended an under-resourced school, or had to work to support themselves or even their families. (Columbia offers the Higher Education Opportunity Program, the private school version of the program.)

"EOP is open to students [of all races]," explains David L. Ferguson, associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Stony Brook. "However, these programs have a mission to increase the representation of economically disadvantaged and underrepresented students."

Although Stony Brook does not use affirmative action in admissions decisions, Ferguson does believe that race should be considered to foster an environment in which students can examine many different perspectives. "A diversity of people and ideas strikes me as what universities ought to be about," he says. "There are historical patterns of discrimination that have been so egregious that colleges and universities have a responsibility to consider that history in admitting and supporting students."

There is an effort to counter the diversity argument, and Roger Clegg is at the forefront. He's president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that focuses on issues of race and ethnicity, in Falls Church, Virginia. Clegg argues that diversity doesn't justify discrimination—especially because, in his view, the educational benefits of diversity are little while the costs, which he says include divisiveness and resentment, are high.

"It's simply untenable to have a legal regime that sorts people according to skin color and treats some people better and other people worse on the basis of which silly little box they check," Clegg says. "More and more it's Asians who are being discriminated against in favor of Latinos. What's the historical justification for that?"

Robert Teranishi, a professor of higher education at New York University and the author of Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Education, says this is an oversimplification. "It's not like universities say we're going to reject student A so we can admit student B," Teranishi says. "It doesn't work that way. Race is just one factor among many that colleges have to take into account. In fact, legacy admits [students given preference for admission to a university because a family member is an alumnus] can be a large portion of incoming students at highly selective schools, and rarely do legacy admits include Asian Americans, blacks, or Latinos."

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