Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

October 11, 2012

Affirmative Action 2.0

By David K. Shipler

When admissions officers from thirty elite universities were asked how many of them were the first in their families to attend college, about two-thirds raised their hands. It was a stunning response, which surprised even them. Here were the gatekeepers for all the Ivy League schools—from Dartmouth to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the rest--plus an array of the other hardest schools to get into, from Amherst to Rice, Carleton, Stanford, Wellesley, Smith, Swarthmore, and the like. They were gathered in Aspen in 2004 to consider how to increase enrollment by students from low-income families.

I had been invited to speak to them about the dynamics of poverty, which some of them already understood very well. Their own upward mobility helped give them a sense of mission, which they were poised to take home to their respective presidents. Some have since succeeded, to a point, and others may do so soon, for race-based affirmative action is now in jeopardy before the Supreme Court. Class-based affirmative action is the likely substitute.

To the extent that colleges can afford to give preference to applicants from low socio-economic backgrounds—students who will need considerable financial aid—the most committed admissions officers are already looking in low-income school districts for talent that may be masked by poverty.

Many such young people are African-American or Hispanic. But since 66 percent of all people below the poverty line are white (and 41 percent are whites who are not Hispanic), class is not a perfect proxy for race. Educators who have tried the approach note that “it has not allowed us to achieve the level of diversity we’d like to see,” an official of the University of California system told The New York Times. So it may be necessary but not sufficient.

It does achieve a different kind of diversity, though, and one that can contribute significantly to the education that students receive on campus by mixing with people different from themselves. Having recently spent a week at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, an open-enrollment school, I saw the synergy brought to classrooms by students from low-income families—some native Alaskan but many white. The discussions of economic issues, especially poverty, were richer, more informed, and more compelling than I’ve encountered at colleges reserved mostly for the well-to-do.

And that’s the rub. In an era of spiraling tuition and sinking family budgets, socio-economic diversity is just too costly for most schools. A few, such as Dartmouth, my alma mater, can afford need-blind admissions and generous financial aid for every student who needs it.

But many others satisfy the goal of racial diversity by cherry-picking more affluent minority students whose families can pay, a practice mentioned during yesterday’s oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Supreme Court case brought by a white woman denied admission under a practice considering race among many other factors. The university’s brief argued for the freedom to accept minority students from privileged backgrounds, for the sake of “increasing diversity within diversity.” This drew sharp, surprised comments from Justices Samuel Alito, an opponent of racial preferences, and Anthony Kennedy, the probable swing vote.

Texas takes the top 10 percent of students in any high school, which guarantees some racial and economic diversity, given the de facto segregation of school districts along the lines between affluence and poverty. But this method, which produces about 75 percent of the university’s students, has generated black representation of only 3 to 4 percent. So the university considers other variables, including race, when filling the remaining 25 percent of the places.

A purpose is to create a “critical mass” of minority students who won’t feel isolated and marginalized, and will have comfort zones within the larger community. What drives the policy most strongly, however, is an argument that overlays affirmative action’s original goal of overcoming a legacy of racial discrimination and opening doors of opportunity to its victims. The newer objective, accepted so far by the Supreme Court, is to achieve a mixture on campus that will benefit everyone, whites included, with a subculture varied enough to be educational, to reflect the larger world for which young people are being prepared.

The Court now seems positioned to strike down this rationale, or at least limit its application. But some aspects of race-based affirmative action may survive surreptitiously in practice, no matter what the Court says, because self-interest has come to drive the policies, not only in colleges but elsewhere in the society, particularly in the military (which wants a diverse officer corps to command the diverse enlisted ranks) and in business (which wants diverse management to relate to a diverse workforce and customer base). The bottom line is not altruistic. In place after place, affirmative action has been kept alive by an institution’s assessment of what does it the most good, and there is now a widespread belief in many quarters that it’s good for the institution to aggressively seek minority students, officers, and managers who can do the work effectively. That is why the University of Texas drew support in amicus briefs from military and corporate leaders.

Not that racial prejudice, and therefore discrimination, have evaporated. Quite the contrary, as the barely encrypted racial caricatures of President Obama demonstrate. The difference today, from a half century ago, is that many institutions recognize the damage that acting on such prejudices can do to their own interests.

Some years ago, a vice president of AT&T (a white man) told me that if he had a choice between hiring or promoting a white man who was comfortable dealing with minorities and women, and a white man who was not, he would definitely prefer the one who had displayed skill and comfort in working across racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender boundaries. AT&T is a global company, he explained, operating in a diverse marketplace. Narrow-minded people were bad for the bottom line.

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