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A Different Approach to Class-Based Affirmative Action
May 4, 2014 - 9:38pm

I get a little twitchy when I read about class-based affirmative action in university admissions, though probably not for the reasons you might expect. 

The underlying premise of the debate around affirmative action in university admissions seems to be that seats on the lifeboat are limited; therefore, allocation of those seats is a matter of high import. Some argue that those seats should be allocated according to pure academic merit, whatever that means. Some argue for a merit-based system with some recognition of different opportunities for ‘merit.’  Some argue for demographic representation.  Some argue for merit until they notice their own group being disadvantaged. But every single one of those positions accepts as given the idea that seats on the lifeboat are finite.

What if they weren’t? What if, with apologies to Roy Scheider, we had a bigger boat?

I’m thinking we should start with the obvious. Let’s equalize per-student funding among sectors of public higher education. Give the same per-student support to community colleges as given to four-year teaching colleges (and/or Master’s level universities) and flagship research universities.  This isn’t as radical a proposal as, say, Sara Goldrick-Rab’s idea to defund private universities and make the first two years of public college free; this could be accommodated within existing structures.  (Her proposal and mine aren’t mutually exclusive; I’m just offering an easier place to start.)

Until we do that, we’re creating an artificial shortage. If we starve out the institutions that serve the vast majority of students, and instead pour money into universities that turn away most of their applicants, then the shortage over which we fight is inevitable. 

But wait, I imagine one saying, what about the costs of research?

Research should be paid for with research funding. I’m talking about institutional funding.

Giving community college students parity in institutional support would allow us to address some issues of long standing. We could finally support reasonable full-time faculty ratios, for example.  We could ramp up our Institutional Research capabilities, a notable weakness of the sector as a whole. (HCC is a lucky exception.)  We would have the resources with which to conduct long-term local or regional experiments.  We could ramp up both our IT capabilities and our human staffing, the better to capture the best gains from technology while preserving the human touch that we consistently find makes the most difference.

Even better, we’d be able to provide opportunities that capable students with difficult lives could actually take. 

The whole “undermatching” literature, of which class-based affirmative action is conceptually a piece, assumes that the only reason an academically capable student would turn down a distant, exclusive institution for a local and inclusive one is ignorance.  I reject that out of hand. Students have three-dimensional lives. They have family obligations. They work for pay.  They even -- horrors! -- have regional preferences just because they do.  (When elites have those, we call it “taste.”) 

If the seats to which local students have access are just as good as the seats that are currently so contested, then many of the battles we’re currently fighting would quickly become moot.  And that would be okay. 

Or, we can continue to fund sectors in inverse proportion to their percentages of students of color. Though I have to admit having a hard time imagining a principled defense of that.

I’m thinking, let’s start with parity.  Let the accessible colleges have the funding to make themselves worthier of the students who need them. If that’s not enough, then we can have that discussion.  But until then, we’ll be stuck arguing in circles.


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