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College officials are anxiously awaiting a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on whether they may continue to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. Many expect the court to limit the consideration of race, and some fear an outright ban.

But a study that will be published this summer in the Harvard Law & Policy Review suggests that class-based affirmative action could yield more spots not only for students from low-income backgrounds, but also for underrepresented minority students -- without the consideration of race. (A preliminary version of the article has been released by the Social Science Research Network.) The study could be significant because it uses a different way of identifying talent from low-income groups. Further, experiments with this system at the University of Colorado at Boulder have found that it increases racial diversity of the admitted applicant pool. The most common critique of class-based affirmative action to date has been that it results in a decrease in the number of minority applicants who are admitted.

The study does not urge the Supreme Court to bar the consideration of race. In fact, the paper argues that "there are good reasons to maintain race-conscious admissions policies and separate good reasons to consider class in the admissions calculus." But the authors -- Matthew N. Gaertner, a research scientist at Pearson's Center for College and Career Success, and Melissa Hart, associate professor of law at the University of Colorado -- note that many Supreme Court watchers believe that there are "five votes to overturn or significantly curtail" the consideration of race. And particularly in this environment, they argue that the Colorado data suggest that colleges need to consider class-based approaches to maintaining diversity.

"A class-based approach -- by definition and often by law -- must be designed to measure one thing (class) while its architects often hope to conveniently proxy another (race)," Gaertner and Hart write in the paper. And the reason it may have failed in the past to achieve the desired level of racial diversity isn't that the class concept is flawed, but that it has been carried out in too "simple" a way, the paper says. A slightly more elaborate system -- which also rewards academic achievement by low-income students -- may yield the desired results in a way that couldn't be attacked legally.

Boulder developed its system when the state's voters appeared poised in 2008 to ban public colleges and universities from considering race in admissions. At the time, no state had voted down such a ban when it had been placed on the ballot, so Boulder officials wanted to be prepared for the loss of their ability to consider race. In the end, Colorado voters rejected the ban, by a narrow margin, but the university proceeded with its research, even as it continued to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions.

In an interview, Gaertner said that the key to the Colorado experiment's success was that it used a sophisticated system for considering socioeconomic disadvantage. Many past systems have simply used some sort of formula to determine if a student is poor or was educated at a high school lacking in resources. Colorado uses a "disadvantage index" (with various measures of disadvantage) and an "overachievement index." The latter rewards students who also have grades or standardized test scores that significantly exceed those typically earned by those in their socioeconomic group. (The system is used only to reward those who are disadvantaged; it is not used to punish well-off applicants whose grades or test scores are below what is commonly achieved at the high schools they attend.)

Another key difference between this and other systems is that, in some cases, Colorado boosts students' socioeconomic status from a "secondary" consideration (which is a factor, but not considered at the same level as grades or test scores) to a "primary" consideration. Whether the boost is primary or secondary depends on the level of disadvantage and the level of overachievement.

Additional Consideration for Applicants

  No Overachievement High Overachievement Extraordinary Overachievement
No Disadvantage No additional consideration Secondary factor boost Primary factor boost
Moderate Disadvantage Secondary factor boost Primary factor boost Primary factor boost
Severe Disadvantage Primary factor boost Primary factor boost Primary factor boost

The paper details comparisons researchers were able to make of the Colorado experiment both in terms of how low socioeconomic status applicants fared under race-based affirmative action and how underrepresented minority applicants fared under this class-based system. It is well documented that many black and Latino applicants come from low-income families, so, in theory, many low-income minority applicants would benefit either way.

But -- using figures from 2009 (which were largely replicated the next year) -- the researchers were able to show that many from low-income groups don't benefit from race-based affirmative action, but that underrepresented minority applicants are more likely to benefit from class-based than race-based affirmative action.

Acceptance Rates for Low-Income Students in 2009 Comparison

Applicant Type Class-Based Race-Based
Low socioeconomic status 81% 72%
Severely low socioeconomic status 83% 63%

Acceptance Rate of Underrepresented Minority Students

Under race-based 56%
Under class-based 65%

This suggests that colleges can shift away from race-based admissions (at least in the way Colorado did) without seeing the minority admissions rate drop. There are several caveats to the research. The paper notes that Boulder -- while competitive in admissions -- is not in the hypercompetitive league of the Ivies or the University of California at Berkeley. A similar experiment may be needed at a more competitive campus to see how the system would play out there. At the same time, the paper notes that far more students (minority and otherwise) enroll at institutions like Boulder than do at the Ivy League.

Gaertner also said it was important to note that this study looks at one key issue -- admissions rates -- and that admission decisions aren't the same as enrollment. "Enrolling a diverse student body relies heavily on not just admissions decisions, but also recruitment, outreach, financial aid, and academic support," he said. So while the study points to a way to have diverse students admitted without considering race, those policies alone may not yield a diverse student body.

And while the paper advocates class-based affirmative action, it also notes the common ideas behind race-based and class-based affirmative action. "Broadly, the values that underlie both race-conscious and class-conscious affirmative action are the same: a conviction that diversity enhances the educational environment, an understanding that merit is something more than scores on standardized tests and high school grades, and a concern that students who have faced disadvantages are often underestimated and therefore passed over for opportunities that will help them overcome those disadvantages," write Gaertner and Hart.

Some calls for the use of class-based affirmative action have defined the goal as replacing race-based affirmative action. While the Gaertner/Hart study says this might be necessary because of court rulings, it doesn't seek the elimination of race-based admissions. That approach -- combined with the evidence of a positive impact on minority admission rates -- could result in the proposal attracting more support than other plans to shift admissions policies.

Shirley J. Wilcher, executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action, said via e-mail that she appreciated that this study isn't a call to eliminate the consideration of race in admissions. She said her organization "supports equal opportunity for all, including low-income non-minority students," and she noted that Colorado never abandoned the consideration of race and ethnicity. "We have always supported the use of class-based considerations in addition to race. We do not understand the suggestion that one should replace the other, absent a Supreme Court decision mandating such a policy," she said.

As for the approach used at Boulder, she said that the disadvantage and overachievement indexes "are fascinating approaches and may serve to identify those students of any race who have overcome obstacles due to their family circumstances: limited resources, lack of access to strong academic programs, tracking in schools or simply lack of awareness of opportunities. In the poorest of neighborhoods there are individuals who have the talent and determination to succeed despite the odds and these indices may serve to identify such students."

Kevin L. MacLennan, director of admissions at Boulder, said he was encouraged by the system the university has adopted. While he hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court does not bar the consideration of race, he said that the Colorado study suggests that "it's reasonable to think that a carefully and methodically class-based system may cushion the impact" of the loss of the ability to consider race in admissions.

MacLennan also said he was proud of the Boulder initiative for the way it reflects a range of values of the university. One of those values is a desire to identify all sorts of talent. But another is that "we value overachievement."

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