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'Place, Not Race'

June 12, 2014

Affirmative action remains a hot topic of political and legal debate. Some advocates of diversity have suggested the class-based affirmative action may be the best approach going forward. A new book, Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America (Beacon Press) argues that place-based affirmative action in college admissions is the best path to help the disadvantaged and promote diversity. The author is Sheryll Cashin, professor of law at Georgetown University. In her book, Cashin also argues for other changes in college admissions policies -- such as an end to non-need-based aid -- that she says favor those who don't need the help. Cashin responded via email to questions about her new book.

Q: Is "place, not race" a different way of saying "class-based affirmative action" or is it a different concept?

A: Place is different! Only 42 percent of Americans live in a middle-class neighborhood. Only 30 percent of black and Latino families do. Those blessed to come of age in poverty-free havens have access to highly selective K-12 education that sets them up well to enter selective higher education. Those who live outside of advantaged neighborhoods and networks must overcome serious structural disadvantages, including under-resourced schools with less experienced teachers, fewer high-achieving peers that raise expectations and model the habits of success, and exposure to violence. Class-based affirmative action that focuses only on family income does not capture the structural disadvantages that cause opportunity hoarding in American society. If universities pursue diversity only by focusing on class, they will not have met their ethical obligation to consider high-achieving students from under-resourced places.

Q: Could the places designated for affirmative action include those where the disadvantaged people are white? Could a college, for example, specify rural poor people (of any race) who live in low-income areas as people on whom to focus?

A: Absolutely, assuming the college does not focus only on the rural poor. There are deserving strivers in cities and struggling suburbs, too. A high-achieving student from a low-opportunity place (e.g., where more than 20 percent of their peers are poor) is deserving of special consideration, regardless of his or her skin color. No one deserves affirmative action simply because they have dark skin or because her parent is an alumnus of her dream school. In addition to helping high-achieving students who are actually disadvantaged, place-based affirmative action has the benefit of encouraging rather than discouraging cross-racial alliances among the majority of Americans who are locked out of resource-rich environs. 

Q: You note the backlash (legal and political) against affirmative action in its current forms. Do you think place as opposed to race would attract more support?

A: Yes, I do. In chapter five of the book, entitled "Reconciliation," I cite the example of the Texas 10 Percent Plan and the coalition of strange bedfellows that supports it. The plan guarantees admission to a public college to graduating seniors in the top 10 percent of every high school in the state. It was enacted by the Texas Legislature, after a temporary court ban on race-based affirmative action, with the support of blacks, Latinos and a lone rural Republican who realized that his constituents were not gaining entrance to the University of Texas. The law ended the dominance of a small number of wealthy high schools in UT admissions and it changed the college-going behavior of high achievers in remote places that had never bothered to apply to UT Austin. Of course, parents in wealthy school attendance zones have repeatedly attacked the plan as unfair, but in the Texas House of Representatives, white Republicans from rural districts, blacks and Latinos strongly support the plan and have insulated it from repeal. The end result is a successful public policy that enhances opportunity across the state and a more cohesive politics -- at least on the issue of access to higher education. Percentage plans are not the only solution but this illustrates the type of transformative policies and politics that diversity advocates could achieve with fresh thinking.

Q: Why do you believe, as you write in your book, that standardized admissions tests are inappropriate?

A: Because they are profoundly unfair and do not reliably predict success in college. An SAT score most reliably predicts the income of the test-taker's parents. Children from households making $160,000 a year tend to do less well than children from households making $200,000 or more. A student whose parents can pay $6,000 for private SAT tutoring enjoys a significant advantage over students whose parents who cannot afford a private coach. Institutions of higher learning should not be in the business of propagating wealth advantages, especially when standardized test scores do not predict college completion or much else. One study that examined academic outcomes at 28 selective colleges found that the strongest predictor of college grades for students of all races was cumulative high school G.P.A. and that the SAT score was nowhere to be found among the strongest predictors. The second-strongest predictor after high school G.P.A. was "academic effort" or a willingness to do the work. Schools like Amherst College, at which nearly a quarter of students receive Pell Grants, have become adept at screening for the non-cognitive attributes -- grit, resilience, scholarly dedication and a willingness to forgo recreation for academics -- that do predict success. 

Q: Why do you think it's important to eliminate non-need-based financial aid?

A: In the Ice Age, when I applied to college, "financial aid" was reserved for people with financial need. "Merit scholarships" were awarded to a relatively few exemplars, regardless of income. Now public and private colleges grant "merit aid" to higher percentages of their students than those who receive need-based aid. As I explain throughout my book, systems of opportunity increasingly work only for people who are already advantaged and colleges and universities have an ethical obligation to mitigate these trends or at least to not to reinforce them. They should resist the hegemony of U.S. News & World Report and not use financial aid dollars to compete for the most advantaged of students who qualify for financial aid. Financial aid should be allocated based solely on financial need. Otherwise low-income strivers, who are least able to acquire the marks of distinction that pass as "merit" and least able to take on market-rate student loans, will be shut out of selective higher education. Hopefully, we will soon reach a tipping point where colleges and universities and the people who love them throw off the oppression of rankings and throw a hammer to the whole admissions process and start breaking things -- to restore common sense, fairness and real opportunity to America.

 

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