Under a chancellor who says he cares more about rankings than did his predecessor, Syracuse U. scales back involvement with well-regarded program for recruiting low-income and minority students -- and those students take note.
As affirmative action continues to backslide, support for economic equality is growing. Could these narratives be combined to fuel new ideas that take advantage of this common ground?
Much is known about the racial achievement gap in higher education. Large, persistent gaps in degree attainment rates between Asian students and white students on one hand, and black, Latino, and Native American students on the other, help explain how the U.S.’s overall attainment rate fell from first in the world to 11th. Yet only recently has the economic achievement gap – a present-tense manifestation of what President Obama has called a “relentless, decades-long trend” of growing inequality – entered the public consciousness.
Research demonstrates that the wealthiest 25 percent of Americans are filling nearly 75 percent of the seats at the 193 most selective U.S. universities – which operate as informal gateways to America’s leadership class – while the poorest 25 percent of Americans fill only 5 percent of these seats. Indeed, the gap in test scores between wealthy students and poor students is almost twice what it is between black and white students. In other words, the opportunity gap in America today may be more about class than it is about race.
At the same time, support for the most direct approach to closing the racial achievement gap in higher education – affirmative action – remains on the decline. Twelve states, where roughly 30 percent of the entire U.S. high school population resides, have outlawed affirmative action over the past two decades.
This creep toward colorblindness seemed incremental and sporadic until last summer, when a near-unanimous U.S. Supreme Court tightened the vise on affirmative action by introducing a new legal framework in Fisher v. University of Texas. Though the only lower court to interpret this new framework held that affirmative action at universities in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi is still permissible, it remains to be seen how other courts will interpret the high court’s exacting new rules.
We believe that there is considerable opportunity to be mined from the crisis surrounding affirmative action, as populations that benefit from racial preferences also stand to benefit from socioeconomic preferences. Indeed, America’s twin achievement gaps could be squarely addressed by a number of “two for one” policies that are creatively tailored to take advantage of this common ground. Such an approach is not new: the federal TRIO programs – 50 years old this month – used first-generation and low-income status along with academic need in order to determine eligibility.
So, what can we do now? We should start by measuring the economic and racial achievement gaps as they exist today. One way to do that is to focus on the share of undergraduate students who receive federal Pell Grants, which go to low-income students. In Virginia, the disparities in this measure of diversity are striking: less than 20 percent of students at William and Mary, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and four other public four-year colleges receive Pell Grants; at Virginia State and Norfolk State, two-thirds of students receive these grants. Since many people who work outside higher education would not associate Pell Grants with low-income status, universities could be required to report the economic make-up of their student bodies to the U.S. Department of Education, as they already do with race. Colleges and universities currently disclose their net prices within income bands, and also have net price calculators available on their websites, but the extent to which this information is used by prospective students and families is unclear.
Once we know the extent of these economic achievement gaps, universities could take steps to close them by enrolling a more economically diverse student body. Indeed, some colleges and universities are taking steps to close the gaps both in admissions and in completion. Others should follow their lead. This would require that the institution adopt an admissions system that assesses applicants for their economic and racial diversity. Then, a university could implement an admissions formula that values economic and racial diversity, putting the new measurements to work.
New research featured in "The Future of Affirmative Action," from Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, demonstrates that an admissions plan that measures and then values socioeconomic status, place (geographic diversity), and race will produce both higher economic diversity and higher racial diversity than either race alone (affirmative action) or class alone. Thus, an admissions plan that measures and then values these three variables together works best at closing the economic and racial achievement gaps simultaneously.
An even more nuanced approach to evaluating applicants has been developed by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC-Berkeley. Under the institute’s Opportunity Enrollment Model, each applicant is given an “opportunity score” that is informed, in part, by the applicant’s neighborhood, including the neighborhood’s poverty rate, job growth rate, and proximity to employment, health care, and public parks, among many other factors.
Because the Opportunity Enrollment Model is technically race-neutral – it reflects the racial makeup of the applicant’s neighborhood, not the race of the individual applicant – universities could likely rely on opportunity scores to identify economically and racially diverse students in states where affirmative action has been outlawed. In order to help these ideas along, universities and nonprofits could forge partnerships with mission-aligned members of the tech community, who may be able to develop software and databases that help implement such models.
Government has a role to play, too. State governments could reward universities that adopt admissions models geared toward closing the achievement gaps, and could tie state subsidies to a university’s economic and racial diversity rates. The proposed federal college ratings system could reward universities in much the same way: if the ratings system’s “access” measurement (one-third of its “access, affordability, and outcomes” variables) is defined to include economic and racial diversity, then the greater the relative value placed on the “access” prong, the greater the incentive for universities to help close the achievement gaps.
A less circuitous option for using public dollars to close the achievement gaps may involve state and federal governments increasing their direct investments in minority-serving institutions, which educate a disproportionate number of both low-income students and students of color.
Altogether, in a field rife with opportunities for policy reform, the economic and racial achievement gaps rarely command the narrative attention they deserve. But as demand for economic equality rises – and support for affirmative action falls – a new narrative is quickly taking shape. Let’s greet it with new, efficient ideas that kill two birds with one stone.
David Bergeron is vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress and former acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. Scott Greytak is of counsel with Campinha Bacote LLC in Washington.
On April 22 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, upholding Michigan voters’ 2006 decision to ban race-based preferences in college admissions. Two immediate consequences of this decision are worth clarifying. First, and most obviously, race-based affirmative action remains prohibited at public universities in Michigan, a state whose population is over 14 percent black but whose flagship public school – the University of Michigan – serves a student body that is only 4 percent black. Second, less obvious and less often emphasized, the Supreme Court opted not to overturn the principle that racial diversity on a college campus is a compelling interest, as it yields unique educational benefits.
In legal terms, race-based affirmative action was left untouched by the Schuette decision. In practical terms, however, the decision could have far-reaching impacts. While there is still nothing unconstitutional about affirmative action, there is now nothing unconstitutional about banning it. That means statewide prohibitions in California, Washington, Arizona, and Nebraska will remain in place and additional challenges to race-conscious admissions are likely to surface. Moreover, the Court’s decision in the Michigan case follows a pair of well-publicized campaigns in other states designed to either chip away at remaining affirmative action policies or beat back efforts to revive those that have been outlawed.
These legal and political developments leave higher education leaders in a quandary. Most of us, from Chief Justice John Roberts to John Q. Public, agree racial diversity is a good thing, and worth pursuing. But pursuing it explicitly by considering race in admissions seems to be falling out of favor at the national level and facing voter opposition in some states.
Fortunately, promising alternatives are gaining traction. While it is self-evident that the best way to achieve racial diversity is to select on race, granting college applicants additional consideration on the basis of socioeconomic hardship may represent the next chapter of affirmative action. Class-based admissions preferences have two particularly attractive features. First, they can cushion the racial blow of an affirmative action ban by capitalizing on the overlap between race and socioeconomic status. Just as important, they can boost college access for disadvantaged students of all races who have overcome obstacles few other college applicants have faced.
Research on class-based affirmative action is still in its infancy, but the results thus far seem promising. In nine states where race-conscious policies have been banned and class-based alternatives have taken hold, racial diversity at selective colleges has rebounded after an initial drop. My own research at the University of Colorado demonstrated that class-based admissions considerations – when sufficiently nuanced and faithfully implemented – can maintain racial diversity and identify applicants who will perform much better in college than their raw academic credentials suggest. Promoting this sort of experimentation seems to be what the Supreme Court has in mind, as last month’s plurality decision reiterated that “universities can and should draw on the most promising aspects of race-neutral alternatives as they develop.”
It should also be emphasized that although the Supreme Court’s ruling in Schuette homed in on admissions decisions, solutions to the economic and racial divide in higher education need not maintain such a narrow focus. For example, the University of California system has developed robust outreach programs to connect with high-achieving low-income middle school students and encourage them to apply to selective universities (nationally, more than 100,000 such students every year do not apply to selective schools). Like class-based affirmative action, outreach is not a diversity panacea. But without talented low-income applicants, colleges will face a supply problem that no admissions solution – race-based or class-based – can overcome.
I ultimately support considering class and race jointly in admissions as the most obvious, efficient, and logical way to boost socioeconomic and racial diversity. But to the extent the Schuette ruling emboldens new state-level campaigns to ban traditional affirmative action, university leaders should begin investigating workable alternatives that suit their schools’ missions. Beginning that process now will serve selective colleges well as the political landscape continues to change.
Matthew Gaertner is a senior research scientist in the Center for College & Career Success at Pearson.
With yet another affirmative action case reaching the Supreme Court just months after the last decision, and with that previous decision likely to produce multiple local challenges to admissions procedures at selective colleges across the country, we might ask whether the courts are the best place to settle this divisive issue of racial preferences.
The Grutter judgment of 2003 didn’t lower the controversy, and neither did the Fisher judgment of 2013, and the upcoming Schuette case won’t, either. People on both sides don’t just disagree. They bring a passionate sense of fairness to the debate that puts the opposition on the side of unfairness. Whichever side loses each skirmish in the issue doesn’t only feel defeated -- it feels wronged, and that inspires only further legal action.
Instead of having lawyers and judges determine the future of racial preferences, perhaps we should appeal to the group affected by them most: college applicants. They have usually been the plaintiffs in cases over the years, and outcomes have turned on data relative to admitted students, so why not ask them to address the controversy? In fact, they have the power to resolve the issue entirely, to everyone’s satisfaction, and they can do it voluntarily and on principle.
The strategem is simple. The 2012 American Freshman Survey reports that 30 percent of first-year college students are “Liberal” or “Far Left,” while nearly half of them declare themselves “Middle-of-the-Road” (47.5 percent). I assume that all the liberal or left students favor racial preferences in college admissions and half of the moderates do. Over all, white students make up 70 percent of the entire first-year student population. This yields a significant portion of white college students who endorse the policy, perhaps one-quarter to one-third of the overall student population. After all, when the American Freshman Survey posed to respondents the assertion, “Racial discrimination is no longer a major problem in America,” only 23 percent agreed.
What would happen if all those white students who assert that racism is still a “major problem” and who approve of affirmative action as one remedy followed their beliefs and did not apply to selective colleges such as Williams, Wesleyan, Boulder and U.Va.? How would that alter the demographics of elite campuses?
The admissions offices at those schools would face a less-competitive white applicant pool and could boost minority acceptances. Thousands of white students with eight AP courses, a 4.0+ GPA, and 95th-percentile SAT scores would not join the mix and raise the averages.
Given their strong support of racial diversity, the schools would rejoice at not having to engage in dicey racial engineering, and students themselves would act on their convictions. If they espouse diversity, they won’t attend colleges with low African American and Hispanic make-ups. Wesleyan University reports that only 7 percent of the student body is “Black or African American," NYU only 4.3 percent. Dartmouth is 8.75 percent Hispanic/Latino,Duke 6.6 percent. Liberal white students (and liberal white parents) should shun them until the ratio matches up with the general population.
Nobody would object and the debate would end. Liberals would support it because it delivers the revered goal of racial diversity, while conservatives would approve because it comes from individual initiative, not state mandate.
Conservative white students may still apply where they wish, and though liberals may accuse them of hindering racial justice, conservatives may reply, “You have behaved consistently with your beliefs -- let me do the same.” In but a few years, the college campus would no longer be a legal battle zone or a hive of racial resentments.
It sounds altogether unrealistic, of course, given the magical prestige of the words Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, et al.
For many people, applying elsewhere means giving up a legacy, forgoing an ambition, perhaps sacrificing a better future. That’s true, but increasingly to a lesser extent, critics now arguing that the cachet of elite institutions is overdone and that their price tag is inflated.
Employers today rely less on G.P.A. and institution and more on interviews and internships when making hiring decisions.
Not only that, but we shouldn’t ignore the hypocrisy of advancing a racially diverse society through affirmative action mechanisms, while refusing to participate in it on one’s own. If racial diversity in elite spaces is so important, does an individual who might get into Williams but goes to UMass-Boston look like a disappointment?
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.