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.
The Supreme Court just kicked the latest affirmative action case (Fisher v. University of Texas), back down to an appeals court, effectively avoiding the big issues of race and class in America – at least for now. Abigail Fisher claimed that the University of Texas at Austin violated her rights by considering race in its admissions process. Fisher is a white woman who was not admitted to the University in 2008.
The Supreme Court claims that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit did not subject the Fisher case to the appropriate standards, in particular: Are the means for ensuring campus diversity narrowly tailored to that goal? And can the university achieve diversity via mechanisms that do not require racial classifications?
Despite the decision to bounce the case back, interesting undertones can be gleaned from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s 7-1 majority opinion, and particularly the two concurring statements from Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. Thomas and Scalia took the opportunity to add their distaste for the entire idea that universities are entitled to use racial considerations in composing their communities. Justice Thomas asserted that "a state’s use of race in higher education admissions decisions is categorically prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause."
The rejection of affirmative action logic, found in Thomas and Scalia, was foreshadowed by Justice Roberts’s earlier slogan, from a 2007 decision, "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of
race." Foes of affirmative action, including some conservative members of the court, seem convinced that we’re now living in a post-racial society, and the policy ameliorations of the past have become the reverse discriminations of today.
One of Ronald Dworkin’s last articles (before his death in February) decried the conservative rejection of affirmative action, predicting that the court would probably overturn the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, which allowed for race considerations in admissions. That may still happen, but not yet.
Dworkin suggested that affirmative action is no more discriminatory than other preferential forms of college admission, including preference for good athletes where universities have strong athletic programs. Institutions are entitled to have reasonable preferences -- higher scoring on standardized tests, for example, puts lower-scoring individuals at a disadvantage. As Dworkin put it, "the Constitution does not prevent regulative legislation that gives advantage to some over
others – to optometrists over oculists, for example – when the legislation serves a ‘rational’ purpose that reflects no prejudice or favoritism." But this last clause was precisely the sticking point, since Abigail Fisher’s case asserted that race consideration in Texas admissions violated her constitutional rights with prejudiced policy. Dworkin found it absurd that the university could be interpreted as prejudiced against white students, since it is overwhelmingly white. Dworkin also dismissed any white resentment (for being passed over), suggesting that the wider moral perspective revealed rational preferences in the affirmative action policy, not just favoritism. He voiced the Left’s position that the higher social good of liberal tolerance is the rational grounding that renders resentments unjustified.
This underlying rational aspect of race consideration is articulated in Sandra Day O’Connor’s 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger endorsement of the Court’s earlier claim that student body diversity is a compelling state interest and justifies the use of race in university admissions. The moral reasoning is that greater campus diversity breaks stereotypes and xenophobia, and students will emerge from these experiences with greater tolerance and less prejudice.
Three important objections can be raised against affirmative action logic, and last month’s Court ruling expresses some of these critiques in its decision. First, this specific demarcation of rational preferential treatment from regular garden-variety discrimination seems to beg the question. The general point – that rational preferences can be positive and defensible – is not the issue. But this specific designation of good and bad preference is the aspect that needs greater warrant.
Using this logic, for example, Dworkin argued that it is not enough to get black students on campus in Texas – a task easily accomplished by an existing law that takes the top 10 percent of Texas high school students and therefore draws smart, poor, black students from geographically black high schools. Judge Alito suggested, while hearing the case, that this 10 percent rule sufficiently ensures the sought-after student diversity. But supporters of affirmative action, like Dworkin, argued that this would not be the right sort of diversity, because it would feed white stereotypes that blacks are poor. Supporters of affirmative action in Texas argued that the university should be encouraged to cherry-pick black students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds in order to break campus stereotypes.
Such fine-grained optimization of diversity is a multiple-edged sword for the state to legislate. For one thing, it’s hard to see why this cherry-picking isn’t already redundant to the existing mechanism of merit admissions, because if a smart black student is from a middle-class family then she already has many of the supportive ingredients to be selected by the institution like every other middle-class student. For this reason, a racial preference may fail the legal strict scrutiny requirement that it be the "least restrictive means" for achieving its goal.
Moreover, the very criterion of "breaking stereotypes" (as rational justification) is a sticky wicket, because it radically opens the floodgates of equally reasonable complaints. Latinos in every economic class will need to be cherry-picked, as will Asians and every other group. If there are not enough gays and lesbians on campus to defuse homophobia, institutions will need to protect slots for gays and lesbians in every economic and racial category. Transgender students will not just need representation, but representation from different economic backgrounds. And Asians who are bad at math and Jews who prefer football to studying will need special recruitment, in order to break down those pernicious widespread
stereotypes on campus. In short, "breaking stereotypes" is an over-inclusive criterion, and it seems to fail the strict scrutiny expectation that a law or policy be “narrowly tailored” to achieve its goal or interest.
Secondly, Dworkin and other supporters think it’s obvious that the university is not guilty of black favoritism, because the institution remains so demographically white. But this ignores the possibility that lefty academics (otherwise known as academics) could be prejudicially biased in favor of minority students, even when they are not themselves minorities. Reverse discrimination can be ideologically motivated. I take it this is a major critique of academe, from the Right – namely, the academy’s general obsession with the subaltern.
White guilt is stronger in the academy than in any other arena of American culture, so it’s not impossible that reverse discrimination has systemic reach in this narrow domain. One way to assess this possibility is to measure the number
of black applicants against the number of blacks admitted. Similar numbers there might be suggestive of institutional reverse discrimination, and this was essentially Justice Rehnnquist’s claim in his dissent for Grutter v. Bollinger. Moreover, Rehnquist argued, this bias was more troubling in the University of Michigan Law School case (Grutter), because the overall number of Latinos admitted from 1995-2000 was only half that of African Americans. The criterion of diversity, therefore, is not producing anything like a representational spread of U.S. demographics. Of course, none of this may indicate favoritism per se, but just a broken haphazard system that’s too unorganized to even have an agenda.
That’s not exactly good news either.
Thirdly, we have come a long way from the original purpose of affirmative action, if the conversion of on-campus white psyches is the new rational justification. President Johnson’s policy started as a legitimate leg-up for black people – a boost for opportunity. But the newer logic holds that affirmative action will better-ensure that white people will think better thoughts about people of color. This moral argument appears to underpin the Supreme Court’s logic in Grutter v. Bollinger, where Justice O’Connor argued that race preference policies would be a necessary evil for only another 15 years (25 years from the original opinion).
When President Johnson first instituted affirmative action, one of the underlying purposes was reparation to the descendants of former slaves, many of whom were victims of Jim Crow bigotry. African Americans who felt the sting of racism directly were helped by the policy. The goal of increased diversity, in schools and the workplace, was intimately connected to this reparation function of affirmative action, but that is no longer the case. In today’s America, many of the people who benefit from diversity policies are not disadvantaged African Americans, but Latinos, Indians, Africans, Vietnamese, Iranians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Koreans, and so on. While many of these groups have faced terrible hardships, they have not been enslaved with the approval of the United States.
We’re not living in a post-racial age, in the sense that we all see past skin color, speech accents and cultural differences. But we are living in a post black-and-white era of discrimination, in the sense that we now have many additional kinds of discrimination (brought on by melting pot trends). Prejudice is not as uniform as it used to be, and now we have micro-prejudices that cannot be legislated away; Puerto Rican Americans stereotype Mexican Americans, who turn around and stereotype African Americans, who in turn stereotype Korean Americans, who then stereotype Japanese Americans, who stereotype Chinese Americans, who tend to stereotype Pakistani Americans, who stereotype Indian Americans, and so on.
Just after the civil rights era, huge immigration spikes started for Asian and Latin American populations. In the 1960s most immigrants came from Europe, so the color question remained acute. Prejudice really was more of a black-and-white issue at that time. But starting in the 1970s there has been a huge influx of color. In 1960, only 9 percent of immigrants were Latin American and 5 percent were Asian. Compare that with 2011 immigration, when 52 percent were Latin American and 28 percent Asian. The color question has changed in America and this has had implications for the logic of affirmative action.
The "diversity argument" that Justice O’Connor proffered in Grutter will probably not survive a substantial challenge because it tries to catch a specific needy demographic – African Americans – with a wide net that also benefits many non-African Americans of color. It would have been better to keep the argument focused on reparation for descendants of slaves, because that smaller net captures the right demographic group. But this argument is problematic for other reasons, namely the historical distance between today’s African-American students and slavery. Switching to an economic criterion for preferential treatment results in two improvements: poor kids get into elite schools and poor minorities are captured within the criterion. But using only the economic criterion creates the stereotyping problems that Dworkin was worried about -- namely, only poor African Americans will be represented on campus.
What O’Connor should have argued was not that "diversity" policies need 25 more years of legal protection (her actual argument), but slavery reparation needs those years of legal protection. That would have been the mechanism needed to keep African Americans inside the affirmative action cohort and other people of color outside the cohort. One wonders, however, how compelling that argument sounds to contemporary American ears, especially when we have a black president in office.
Many middle-class African Americans feel that we’ve outgrown affirmative action. President Obama, for example, has stated that his own privileged daughters don’t deserve affirmative action preferences. Instead, he argues, low-income students of all races should be given preferential treatment. At the same time, his Department of Justice supported the race-based admissions in the University of Texas case.
When Asians score their way into all the slots at the good colleges, will whites argue that they were discriminated against? Actually, Asian scholastic excellence is already so powerful that Asians have to be discriminated against to keep them from overpopulating competitive programs. As recounted by William Chase in an article in The American Scholar, a Princeton University study analyzed the records of more than 100,000 applicants to three highly selective private universities. "They found that being an African American candidate was worth, on average, an additional 230 SAT points on the 1600-point scale and that being Hispanic was worth an additional 185 points, but that being an Asian-American candidate warranted the loss, on average, of 50 SAT points.”
The time has come, I submit, for us to embrace a post-affirmative action future. There may be very good arguments for maintaining preferential treatment for African Americans specifically, but those arguments will probably need definitive detachment from current affirmative action logic. Since African Americans continue to be underrepresented in today’s universities – despite all-time-high representation of nonwhite students – some policies should probably return to the language and logic of reparation (rather than just equal opportunity). This battle is still fightable and winnable, but it will need to start afresh.
As far as overall diversity goes, we might bite the bullet and assert – independent of the affirmative action tradition – that we want a pluralistic campus that reflects our national melting pot. To that end, we might create a quota lottery that replicates, on campus, the same racial demographics of the whole nation (white = 75 percent, Latino = 15 percent, black = 12 percent, Asian = 5 percent, and so on). But the problem here is now obvious. We would need to actively restrain one of the most impressive academic racial groups (Asians) in order to force them to conform to their tiny demographic percentage. This seems both unethical and unwise.
Whatever remains of the diversity argument and the affirmative action mechanisms should be rerouted entirely and enlisted to address the bigger challenge of our time, economic disparity. Ensuring access to poor students of every race is not only pressing, but has the added benefit of being solvable by legislative means. Now that the Court has remanded the case, things will be status quo for the time being. But the demand for strict scrutiny here seems like a technical dodge, and won’t stave off the changing tides of American social justice.
Stephen T. Asma is professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of seven books, including Against Fairness (University of Chicago Press), On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford University Press) and The Gods Drink Whiskey (HarperOne).
Last month the U.S. Supreme Court announced its ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, reiterating that race-conscious college admissions policies are subject to "strict scrutiny" – a rigorous legal standard. Writing the opinion for a 7-1 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that when universities use race-based affirmative action, the courts "must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity."
In fact, the issue seems far from settled. Fisher will be reconsidered by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear an additional case this fall – Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action – related to affirmative action in Michigan. At issue in Schuette is the constitutionality of statewide bans (usually enacted via popular referendum) on using race in admissions or employment. Because popular support for traditional, race-based preferences has dwindled over the past decade, and Fisher and Schuette are still in play, many Court observers suspect race-based affirmative action will be curtailed significantly if not struck down entirely. If that happens, it seems reasonable to think diversity at our nation's selective institutions of higher education will be radically diminished.
But that’s by no means inevitable. Many states have already faced prohibitions on race-conscious admissions, and have developed innovative admissions strategies to maintain and even increase diversity at their flagship institutions. In some cases, they’ve also managed to increase an even more underrepresented population on campus – poor students.
That’s what happened in 2008, when Colorado faced a ballot initiative seeking to prohibit consideration of race in college admissions. In response, the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) developed a class-based affirmative action system that would serve the university’s interest in admitting a broadly diverse class while complying with the proposed ban on race-conscious admissions. Even though the initiative did not pass, CU went ahead and enhanced its admissions process to give additional consideration to disadvantaged applicants. In 2011, when this class-based system was fully used for the first time, CU enrolled the most socioeconomically and racially diverse freshman class in its history.
So how did CU do it?
The university developed two statistical measures, which its admissions officers now use to identify not only those applicants who have faced adversity, but also those who have demonstrated extraordinary academic achievement in light of their circumstances. The first measure – the "Disadvantage Index" – essentially tells us how an applicant’s socioeconomic background has impacted his or her chances of enrolling in college. The second measure – the "Overachievement Index" – tells us how an applicant’s high school academic credentials (e.g., SAT or ACT scores) compare to those of students with similar backgrounds. Ultimately, the disadvantaged and overachieving applicants identified by these indexes receive a leg up in the admissions process.
Controlled experiments, summarized in an upcoming issue of Harvard Law & Policy Review, showed promising results. First, using the race-neutral indexes to replace race-conscious admissions increased acceptance rates not only for economically disadvantaged applicants, but also for racial minorities. Moreover, analyses suggest some “class-based admits” – those who wouldn’t be accepted without a class-conscious admissions policy – may fare well in college. Specifically, those identified by the Overachievement Index are predicted to earn higher grades and graduate at higher rates than typical CU undergraduates.
The unprecedented diversity of the freshman class of 2011 seems to validate the experimental findings, but to be fair, many factors outside admissions policy can influence campus diversity. At CU, for example, expanded recruitment, outreach, and student retention efforts deserve much of the credit. Class-based affirmative action cannot sustain socioeconomic and racial diversity on its own; universities need comprehensive strategies that not only grant additional consideration to disadvantaged applicants during the admissions process, but also encourage them to apply in the first place and support their academic development once they’ve arrived on campus. In their report "A Better Affirmative Action," Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter document this sort of thoughtful planning in nine states where race-conscious admissions have already been banned.
Through coordinated recruiting and outreach and carefully designed admissions policies, universities in most of those states have boosted the socioeconomic and racial diversity of incoming classes. Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby has uncovered another promising approach – personalized recruitment materials – that may substantially increase college access for thousands of high-achieving, low-income students who aren’t applying to selective colleges. This research has not gone unnoticed. In recent months, we’ve seen a rising tide of calls from across the ideological spectrum to seriously pursue class-based affirmative action, at a time when enthusiasm for race-based preferences seems to be waning.
The point here is not that universities should revamp their recruitment materials or adopt the Disadvantage and Overachievement Indexes and expect a seamless transition away from race-conscious admissions. Rather, the point is that social scientists have been hard at work for quite some time developing, refining, and studying class-conscious strategies that can advance the goals and social purposes of the universities that use them. The University of Colorado recognized the value in this line of research, and took proactive steps to support campus diversity by considering class in its admissions process.
Given last month's Fisher ruling and the Schuette decision to come, other university administrators should follow suit. Sooner would probably be better, to avoid the hasty adoption of class-based policies in the scramble of legal uncertainty. As Greg Roberts, the dean of admission at the University of Virginia, recently pointed out, "If there are changes to how we define diversity then I expect schools will really work hard at identifying low-income students." For those of us who care deeply about equal opportunity and social justice, class-conscious admissions policies offer unique promise: They focus our attention on socioeconomic integration, and may open new pathways to higher education for students who have traditionally faced economic, social, and institutional barriers.
Matthew Gaertner worked with the University of Colorado Boulder office of admissions to create these class-based admissions indexes. He is currently a research scientist in the Center for College & Career at Pearson.