An Alternative Approach to Affirmative Action

Catharine B. Hill writes that there’s a better way to make access to the largest subsidies at the more selective institutions available to talented students from all backgrounds.

October 10, 2022

On the inauspicious date of Oct. 31, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in cases challenging the race-conscious admissions policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Amici briefs supporting the continuation of these policies were recently submitted. Many of the latest briefs repeat arguments about the educational benefits of a diverse student body, originally articulated as a “compelling state interest” in the Bakke decision. Others, including a brief from the American Council on Education, support institutional autonomy and argue that colleges and universities should have the “freedom to decide on how to best bring together a student body that furthers the institution’s mission and goals.”

This Supreme Court has demonstrated that it does not put much weight on past decisions. The colleges and universities that practice affirmative action admissions policies should be actively considering alternatives. Affirmative action admissions policies are only needed because of how admissions decisions are made at well-resourced colleges and universities, relying on criteria that privilege high-income white applicants and disadvantage talented lower-income students, including many students of color.

Instead of treating admission to a selective college as something applicants have earned and are entitled to because of a set of accomplishments at age 18 that have little to do with the public good, admission should be based on expectations of future benefits to society from educating a talented set of students from all backgrounds, evaluating their potential on the basis of what they have accomplished, in the context of opportunities available to them. In this case, colleges and universities would not need affirmative action policies to justify their admissions decisions. If the use of affirmative action in admissions is struck down by the Supreme Court, institutions should redefine how they make admissions decisions and emphasize the contributions to society expected from educating the students they admit.

In addition to being good for society, this would justify the large public subsidies these institutions receive. The wealth of these institutions has been supported by policies—federal, state and local—because education has been seen as a public interest. It is reasonable to ask whether the admissions policies of these institutions, not just affirmative action, justify continuing public financial support.

Currently, we have a set of government policies giving students access to financial aid, and we have a set of tax policies that benefit colleges and universities because of their nonprofit status. We also have 50 states deciding on the extent of support for public institutions, from their flagships to community colleges. The current benefits of these policies are mainly a result of developments such as income distribution, stock market performance and state revenues. Many of these developments have in turn contributed to significantly increasing resource disparities at different institutions, with the more selective schools benefiting from larger subsidies. If the resources available across American higher education were more equal, it wouldn’t matter so much which students attended which institutions.

Given the disparities, what admissions policies would best support the public interest and justify existing subsidies? What set of students, at what set of institutions, would best contribute to our nation’s well-being? A place to start: make access to the largest subsidies at the more selective institutions available to talented students from all backgrounds. This would require a significant change in admissions criteria, in addition to a significant increase in financial aid resources. The criteria currently used to gain admissions to the most selective institutions are heavily correlated with income, which is why the most selective have such high shares of students from the very top of the income distribution. Since this is not an optimal or intentional allocation of educational resources, particularly of those subsidies supported by taxpayers, both the admissions criteria and the amount of resources allocated to need-based financial aid need to change.

Rather than putting weight on things that often signal a higher income (numerous Advanced Placement courses, high SAT scores after multiple test attempts, fencing or squash skills), admissions officials would be asked to evaluate what the student has accomplished, given the applicant’s background, or what they accomplished given what they had available. Making the resources that go along with attending these selective colleges available to applicants from all backgrounds would offer students greater options and future success. This would in turn contribute to a better-functioning democracy, which depends on all members of society having a fair shot at succeeding.

Much debate has taken place to date about whether income-based affirmative action policies, as an alternative to race-based affirmative action policies, could achieve similar amounts of racial diversity at the more selective colleges and universities. My proposal is not for an income-based admissions policy, but a more fundamental rethinking of how to evaluate students for admissions to the schools with the most resources. Talent and potential matter but are not well measured via current admissions criteria.

It is not a question of lowering standards, but of changing standards. It is not an issue of finding proxies for race, if race-based affirmative action is eliminated.

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To some extent, race-based affirmative action policies have used race as a proxy for applicants’ other characteristics, attributes or circumstances. Yet race is an imperfect proxy. While hard to evaluate, attempting to evaluate those factors that race was proxying for—such as fewer opportunities to demonstrate talent in the classroom and extracurricular activities—should not be impossible and would allow for a better evaluation of talent and potential. What did the student accomplish, given the circumstances in which they have grown up? Did they demonstrate the ability and enthusiasm to do the academic work in high school, while working to support their family or helping with siblings or another family member? This shouldn’t be seen as something compensating for not having stellar extracurricular activities or high SAT scores, but as a fairer measure of talent and potential, since the latter measures of success are to a large extent the result of significant investments that these other students have not had access to.

Students do need to have the ability to succeed and take advantage of the education offered, yet a 10- or 100-point difference on standardized tests won’t measure this. Similarly, one or two bad grades on the high school transcript shouldn’t be used to screen out students. If the academic credentials of the bottom 25 percent or 50 percent of current students at the more selective institutions became the average instead, the class could be significantly more diverse without practicing affirmative action. Colleges and universities would know that these students could succeed because half of their students would already fit this description. Many more applicants would be considered admissible. How to decide among them is the responsibility of these institutions and will be harder than looking at grades and SAT scores. Places to start might include work ethic, family responsibilities, family wealth and income, if these affected opportunities, evidence of overcoming adversity, etc. Many of these will be subjective, but better to try than to use more objective measures that don’t measure what we should value.

If colleges and universities truly believe that greater diversity would contribute to the educational mission, such a shift would increase diversity beyond what has been accomplished with existing admissions policies. These policies have led to minimal socioeconomic diversity at the better-resourced colleges and universities, and affirmative action has had little to no impact on increasing the racial diversity at these institutions over the last 20 years.

What if colleges and universities asked instead, how can we best support our society, including the economy and our democracy? Supporting greater opportunity for talented young people from all backgrounds is key and would more equitably distribute the subsidies at the best-resourced institutions and better position these students for success. For a functioning society, we need doctors, judges, politicians and faculty from different backgrounds. Families need to see that their children have a fair shot at success. And, clearly, we need to learn to live in an increasingly diverse society in more constructive ways. Where better to do that than our college campuses?

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Catharine B. Hill is managing director of Ithaka S+R and president emerita of Vassar College.

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