Affirmative Action: Should We Favor Class Over Race?

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Why you should care

Because it’s getting harder for low-income students to keep up with their wealthier peers.

OZY’s next TV show, Third Rail With OZY, is launching on PBS this fall! To kick things off, we’re shelving anything PC and launching debates. Nothing is off-limits, and we’ll go where most fear to tread. Each Wednesday, we’ll post a provocative question, with a focus on topics that might make it onto the show.

Our question this week: Should we favor class over race in affirmative action? We want to hear from you. Email thirdrail@ozy.com with your thoughts or a personal story, and we might feature your answer next week.

The recent rumors of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court and the prospect of President Donald Trump replacing him with a more conservative justice serve as reminders that race-based affirmative action in America may be on its last pair of 80-year-old legal legs. Last year, the often-swing justice was the deciding vote in a 4-3 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, upholding the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions system.

The precarious legal footing, and a renewed interest in addressing income and educational inequality, has led a number of states and schools to develop class-based preferences in admissions policies that they hope will improve both income and racial diversity. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s composition, is it time to move beyond racial preferences in admissions? Should more places consider jettisoning race-based affirmative action in favor of class-based?

Can class-based admissions policies be trusted to maintain minority representation levels?

Although affirmative action policies are used in the U.S. workplace, their use in the sphere of higher education has been the focal point of recent Supreme Court cases, and hence the center of the debate. It wasn’t long ago that the achievement gap between white and Black students in America was twice as large as the one between students from low-income and high-income families. But that dynamic has shifted in recent years, according to a recent report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, an independent educational organization. The income gap now is twice as big as the race one. While students from the bottom-income quartile make up about 3 percent of enrollment in the most competitive U.S. colleges, their peers from the top-income quartile make up a whopping 72 percent, despite affirmative action policies and rising Pell Grant levels at these schools.

Why such a pronounced class difference? “The biggest problem is money,” best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell told OZY last summer before discussing educational inequality at OZY Fest in New York City’s Central Park. “College has gotten absurdly expensive, and lower-income Americans can’t afford it,” he said. On average, students from low-income families are less likely than their more advantaged peers to have access to Advanced Placement courses, to visit college campuses, to make early applications, to have knowledge of available financial aid and to enjoy a host of other resources that help one navigate and win entry into a selective college.

To address such class discrepancies (and to get around restrictions on race-based preferences), a number of states, including Texas, California and Florida, have “percent plans” that guarantee admission to state universities for the top-ranked graduates at each high school in the state, and a number of colleges have adopted socioeconomic-based admissions. The University of Colorado, Boulder, for example, uses a number of socioeconomic variables (a “disadvantage index”) in admissions to boost its numbers of both low-income students and underrepresented minorities.

It’s not clear, however, whether CU’s policy can be successfully transplanted elsewhere, or whether class-based admissions policies can be trusted to maintain minority representation levels absent the inclusion of race-based factors. According to Angel L. Harris, a sociology professor at Duke University who has studied the impact of percent plans like Texas’ on racial compositions, income and race-based preferences are not interchangeable, and “moving away from race-based admissions policies,” as he argues in The New York Times, “appears to lead to a reduction in the representation of diverse perspectives.”

American employers who voluntarily implement race-based affirmative action plans to promote a more diverse workforce have closely observed the Supreme Court’s rulings on race-conscious admissions policies, and will undoubtedly also monitor how well class-based policies might succeed in the realm of higher education. And if class-based decisions can work in admissions, then perhaps they can help inform hiring decisions too.

What do you think? Should we favor class over race when it comes to affirmative action? Email thirdrail@ozy.com.

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