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.
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