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A New Affirmative Action

October 3, 2012

A new report from the Century Foundation, released one week before the Supreme Court is set to hear what could be a landmark case on affirmative action in university admissions, argues that universities could become more diverse by eliminating the consideration of race.

The report, “A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities That Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences,” proposes class-based affirmative action as a replacement for race-based admissions, and analyzes data from the seven states -- Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona and New Hampshire -- that have stopped using race as a factor in admissions.

The report is part of the ongoing debate leading up to the oral argument in the Fisher v. University of Texas case, in which a white student who was denied admission to University of Texas at Austin is suing the university on the grounds that its use of race in admissions decisions is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has previously ruled in favor of affirmative action in admissions provided that policies are narrowly tailored, but the plaintiff argues that race-based policies are unconstitutional if there is a suitable alternative for achieving the same ends.

The Century Foundation report proposes consideration of socioeconomic factors as that alternative. Rather than evaluating applicants based on their race, the report says, universities should look at parental income, the wealth of the neighborhood a student comes from, and parental education level, among other factors.

“If college admissions officers want to be fair -- truly meritocratic -- they need to consider not only a student’s raw academic credentials, but also what obstacles she had to overcome to achieve them,” the report says, arguing that while race is not inherently an obstacle, low socioeconomic status is.

To make his case, the report's author, Richard Kahlenberg, lays out the policies that have been implemented in the seven states that have banned, at some point, race-based admissions. Those policies include increasing financial aid, admitting all students who graduate in the upper echelons of their high school class, creating partnerships with K-12 schools, and providing and admissions advantage to low-income and working-class students.

Each state implements a different combination of those programs, but almost across the board, Kahlenberg writes, the results have been the same. With the exception of Michigan and not accounting for New Hampshire, which moved to race-blind admissions only this year, every state saw an initial drop in racial diversity the first year without race-based affirmative action, but representation of minority students subsequently climbed to equal or greater levels.

One example can be found in Texas, the state at the center of the Supreme Court Case. When affirmative action was banned in Texas -- the ban was later overturned -- the state instead created a plan by which students graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class would automatically be admitted to the university of their choice. Kahlenberg lists the statistics: in 1996, when the university was still considering race, 4.1 percent of UT-Austin freshmen were African American, and 14.5 percent were Hispanic, but in 2004, using race-blind admissions, the percentages increased to 4.1 percent and 16.9 percent, respectively.

Opponents argue that these numbers do not adequately represent the demographics of Texas, where minority populations are increasing faster than others, and therefore indicate that the system doesn’t work. (And such an approach is made possible, others note, only because many parts of Texas have racially segregated K-12 schools, so guaranteeing admission to top students from each school produces racial diversity in a way that wouldn't be true in many other places.)

The Century Foundation report challenges the adequate representation argument, however, by stating that the Supreme Court has never said that the goal is to have university demographics mirror state demographics; the goal is to create a critical mass.

Closer Look at Class

Of course, there has been plenty of focus on Texas’ 10 percent plan beyond this report. Where Kahlenberg’s report charts somewhat new territory is in the evaluation of class-based affirmative action, and he notes that Texas, in addition to the 10 percent plan, also gave admissions preferences to those from disadvantaged economic backgrounds when it was banned from using race.

Kahlenberg argues first that class-based affirmative action is more acceptable to Americans, citing a few public polls that showed waning support for race-based affirmative action and more positive sentiments about socioeconomic-based approaches. He also contends that giving admissions preferences based on socioeconomic status is a way of indirectly producing racial diversity, and is more widely applicable than the 10 percent plan, which would be difficult to implement at a private university or a graduate school.

The report posits, too, that socioeconomic diversity should be just as desirable as racial diversity.

“If the value of diversity from an educational standpoint is based in large measure on the different life experiences that students bring to the classroom, then a white student growing up in a trailer home, a black student growing up in a ghetto, or a Latino student growing up in a barrio is likely to bring as much diversity as the son of a doctor or lawyer, no matter his race,” the report says.

Critics of economic-based policies say indirectly creating racial diversity is less efficient and less effective than simply considering race in admissions.

At a briefing last week addressing research in favor of affirmative action, Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles, responded to a question about class-based affirmative action by saying that a formula for “re-creating race indirectly” would be clunky and time-consuming, and ultimately not getting to the same point.

“We have things that are beyond class, that are about race,” he said. “Looking at race as a reality is a sensible way of doing this.”

Additionally, in its amicus brief on behalf of the University of Texas, the American Association for Affirmative Action argues that while there has been no history of systemic exclusion of students based on their class, there has been history of exclusion based on race. It argues that race-blind policies would increase the racial disparities in education and would increase the stigma on minority students who were admitted based on socioeconomic factors.

The stigma argument is one taken up by both sides. Opponents of affirmative action say that race-based policies create a mismatch problem, where minority students end up at universities they are not qualified to be at, can’t keep up with the work, and -- as a result -- end up isolated from their better-prepared peers.

Proponents counter, however, that elimination of affirmative action would create an imbalance of minority students from different socioeconomic backgrounds; if the only black students at a university are poor, they say, that perpetuates stereotypes and isolates those students.

The affirmative action association argues for using class-based preferences in addition to race-based ones, but Kahlenberg argues in his report that this rarely plays out in practice. He also addresses other objections -- like Orfield’s contention that race is still an important factor and that class-based policies merely reconstruct race -- by examining the moral cost of using race, and noting that the “appropriate remedy to racial discrimination, under our laws, is punishment under civil rights statutes.”

One of the most often heard arguments against the elimination of race-based admissions policies is that, in certain cases, they haven’t worked. Kahlenberg acknowledges that at the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Michigan, diversity has not rebounded to its original levels before the elimination of affirmative action, but he believes this could be changed if all universities used similar policies. That’s because the minority students who are qualified for these elite universities are usually offered scholarships to other universities that are not race-blind, he writes.

“The positive racial dividend of economic affirmative action and other race-neutral programs is likely to be greater in the event that all schools are playing by the same set of rules regarding the use of race,” the report says.

As a final critique of affirmative action supporters, Kahlenberg suggests that, perhaps, universities are averse to class-based admissions policies because higher education does not value economic diversity as much as it values racial diversity, for reasons that are unclear.

“Perhaps some higher education officials have disdain for white working class students, who may not share their worldview on cultural matters such as abortion, the role of religion in society, or gay rights,” Kahlenberg suggests.

 

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