Affirmative Action's Next Phase May Target Class, Not Race

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments Over Michigan Affirmative Action Ban

Tabrian Joe, a Sophomore at Western Michigan University, leads a protest in support of affirmative action outside the Supreme Court during the hearing of "Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action," on Oct. 15, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Getty Images

With race-based affirmative action taking yet another, potentially lethal blow after last Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision, experts say universities may soon need to get creative if they’re serious about diversity.

The ruling was relatively finite — it merely affirmed the constitutionality of Michigan’s 2006 ban on race as a factor in college admissions — but it opened the door for other states to do the same thing. The decision is the latest in several Supreme Court cases since 2011 that have chipped away at race-based admissions practices. But that doesn’t mean universities will cease trying to diversify—they’ll just find other ways to do it.

“I think class- and wealth-based affirmative action is the future,” said Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology, medicine and public policy at New York University. “You’re going to see a lot of experimentation on how to do this in the next few years.”

A few public university systems have already been experimenting with admissions policies meant to level the playing field for poor students, which indirectly boosts racial diversity. Texas, California and Florida have adopted versions of the “top 10 percent” plan, where a percentage (the number varies) of students from each high school in the state are guaranteed admission to state universities, giving a better chance to striving students from disadvantaged high schools. Texas, class-based affirmative action’s guinea pig, has been doing this since 1996.

Some experts, most notably Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a public policy think tank, have held Texas up as an example, citing increased enrollment by black and Hispanic students eight years after the “top 10” plan began. Supporters say these methods are effective in creating a campus that’s both racially and economically diverse — rather than simply filling quotas by admitting privileged students of color, as many universities tend to do under traditional affirmative action.

“Texas’ percent program has been quite successful,” said Halley Potter, a policy associate at the Century Foundation who co-authored a study with Kahlenberg on the future of affirmative action. “Since [top 10] students are allowed to pick the campus they go to, this method has had a profound effect on UT Texas and Texas AMU,” the state’s flagship universities.

On the other hand, the University of California’s black and Hispanic populations plunged after “top 10” was implemented in 1997 and have never rebounded at selective campuses like UCLA and UC-Berkeley (a fact cited in Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion Tuesday). That’s likely because UC only guarantees admission to at least one of the campuses for “top 10” students.

Stella Flores, associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University, says colorblind, class-based fixes like these don’t create racial diversity as effectively as race-based affirmative action does — and she says the numbers prove it.

Even though the number of black and Latino students enrolling in Texas schools increased, it hasn’t kept up with the demographic growth in that state. UT-Austin’s 2013 freshman class, for example, was 23 percent Hispanic and 5 percent black — well below the state percentages of 38 and 12, respectively. (The numbers of college-age black and Hispanic Texans are even higher).

This disparity mirrors the rest of the country: Hispanic and black college enrollment has soared in the past decade, but both groups continue to be underrepresented at four-year colleges, especially more selective schools like UT-Austin and UC-Berkeley. Fifty-six percent of Hispanic college students, for instance, enroll in a four-year college, versus 72 percent of their white counterparts.

Not to mention that “top 10” programs’ success depends on states remaining highly segregated by class and race — a dynamic that skeptics of the plan view as morally problematic.

But Potter said less sweeping, more individualistic ways to factor in socioeconomic status can be more effective than “top 10.” She pointed to the University of Colorado-Boulder, where admissions officers created an algorithm based on how prospective students’ performance compares to students with similar backgrounds and experiences. This “disadvantage index” allows them to measure the students’ relative perseverance in the context of obstacles to their upward mobility. For example, a B average from a kid who grew up in a single-parent household, speaks Spanish at home, and had a job during high school would mean more than a B average from a more affluent, third-generation American student.

According to Potter, University of Colorado-Boulder “has actually done a better job of increasing admit rates for…underrepresented minorities” than race-based affirmative action.

Solutions like Boulder’s have moved into the spotlight as race-based affirmative action phases out across the country — and some administrators even see a race-neutral future as a chance to revamp a system that, especially in the strapped state university system, tends to focus on recruiting wealthier students of color.

“Many schools are reluctant to move beyond race, because admitting poor students has financial implications for their institution,” Potter said. Since Pell grants often don’t fully cover tuition, colleges would either have to cut prices or raise financial aid to accommodate more low-income students. “To the extent that [class-based policy] is pushing colleges to really think about socioeconomic status and broaden their definition of diversity, I think that is positive,” she said.

At elite universities, a “top 10” class-based program would likely never happen because it would take away their ability to be selective. But according to Potter, top universities could benefit from a Boulder-like algorithm, since it’s “a better way of being meritocratic. You’re looking at not only students’ broad academic achievement but also the obstacles they’ve overcome,” she said.

At this point, many selective colleges already factor in both race and class as a consideration, and their large endowments would hypothetically render them more equipped to subsidize good, low-income students. The problem is, most high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to top colleges at all; state colleges are often receiving their applications instead.

It’s undeniable that the United States’ wealth gap correlates with race — black households’ net worth is only about 4.5 percent of whites’ median household wealth — so it would make sense that tackling class would solve two diversity problems at once. But many experts say there are racial factors to consider that are separate from class.

“Racial identity and tolerance are important aspects of one’s education,” said Brenda Shum, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She pointed to a recent incident at the University of Mississippi, where a fraternity closed its chapter after three members were accused of tying a noose around a statue of James Meredith, the college’s first black student.

“Educators need to acknowledge how diversity promotes racial understanding” and combats prejudice, she said. In a state that’s almost 40 percent black, Ole Miss’s black population hovers at only about 17 percent. And the campus’ already tense race relations can’t abide potentially an even less diverse population under race-blind admissions policies, according to Shum.

Flores is also concerned that with a solely class-based system, deep-seated stereotypes about blacks and Latinos will remain.

“With race-based affirmative action, you have more income variation,” she said. If most of the students benefiting from new class-based policies are low-income and non-white, “what does that tell white students — that every person of color is poor?” (Potter counters that there’s “not a huge amount of evidence” that fewer affluent students of color will be admitted to colleges without race-based affirmative action.)

But for Ward Connerly, founder of the conservative American Civil Rights Institute, even if a colorblind future did mean a smaller and more homogenous pool of minority students, it’s a small price to pay for getting rid of what he sees as a prejudiced system.

“To engage in what amounts to racial discrimination in the name of ‘we want diversity’ I think is morally wrong,” said Connerly, who is black. “Race shouldn’t matter more than other types of diversity. Class-based remedies make sense in a society that is as fluid as ours is, with more and more black people finding themselves part of the middle class.”

Until there’s an outright federal ban on race-based admissions policies, it will be up to each university to decide which methods help them hit their diversity goals. And according to Flores, their standards should be high. “Universities have to ask themselves whether having a racially diverse student body leads to the best educations, the most employable students, a labor market that works in favor of their alumni,” she said.

They can have a 99 percent white student body if they want to, Flores said, “but does that does really contribute to the benefit of all?”

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