Attacking the Opportunity Gap
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.
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