By David K. Shipler
College admissions officers who want racial diversity on campus have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with a conservative Supreme Court that dislikes racial preferences. The next probable step, once the Court decides the case it heard today (Dec. 9), is to shift from race to socioeconomic class as a means to assemble a creative variety of students. This would have pluses and minuses as a substitute for race-based affirmative action, which the Court seems poised to restrict severely or to strike down entirely in the current case, Fisher v. University of Texas.
Class could be used as a proxy for race and ethnicity, given the overrepresentation of African-American and Latino households at lower income levels in the population as a whole. But the blacks and Latinos admitted to the most selective universities would be very different from those who get in under current racial preferences, large majorities of whom are middle- or upper-class, with only tiny fractions from poor backgrounds.
“At the top twenty law schools, 89 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Latinos (and even higher proportions of whites and Asians) come from the top socioeconomic half of the population,” writes Richard D. Kahlenberg, citing a 2011 study, while only 2 percent of all law students in those schools come from the bottom quarter. “Another study finds that the proportion of black students at elite colleges coming from the top quartile of the socioeconomic distribution increased from 29 percent in 1972 to 67 percent in 1992.”
Those figures are an index of the success of nearly a half century of affirmative action by both colleges and employers. As de jure segregation ended and admissions officers reached out to recruit black applicants from both suburban and inner-city high schools, a modicum of upward mobility developed. A rising number of African-American and Latino teenagers became the first generation in their families to go to college.
This has been an important victory, but it hasn’t solved endemic problems. Racial discrimination persists in employment, and de facto racial segregation in the country’s public schools has increased, largely along class lines. Where test scores once diverged dramatically by race, the SAT gap now correlates more highly with class. A 2010 study “found that coming from the most socioeconomically disadvantaged family predicts a score that is an incredible 399 points lower on the math and verbal sections of the SAT (on a 400-1600 point scale),” writes Kahlenberg. “The racial gap between black and whites students was a much smaller 56 points.”
So the definition and purpose of diversification on campus cries out for the reexamination that the Supreme Court may force. Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation, argues in a new report, “Achieving Better Diversity,” that current racial preferences produce obvious diversity on the cheap. Campuses are visibly multiracial but not multi-class; top schools can afford the preferences by accepting minority students who don’t need as much financial aid as would those from poor families. “In reality,” Kahlenberg says, “the use of racial preferences helps prop up a larger system that perpetuates the support of a black elite alongside a white elite.”
The term “black elite” is an overstatement, for even middle-income black and Latino students who get into elite colleges often need financial support to supplement their families’ modest net worth. Income alone is an insufficient indicator of financial well-being; it is a still photograph of the present, not the moving picture of history that net worth provides. Blacks’ median household income is 60 percent of whites’, but the net assets of black households are only 5 percent of whites’.
Kahlenberg cites net-worth disparity to argue for a class-based affirmative action effort that would take family assets into account, along with income, parents’ education, and other factors, in defining applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. He observes that class would offer a valid alternative to racial preferences, meet less resistance from the public, and face fewer legal obstacles.
Some experience shows that racial and ethnic diversity can be maintained and even enhanced by class-based preferences, which would also assist low-income whites, who now get virtually no preference. Except for the University of Michigan, UCLA, and Berkeley, where black representation declined after racial preferences were banned by voters, leading state universities restricted in the use of race in Texas, Washington, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, and Arizona maintained or exceeded the percentages of African Americans and Latinos among their students by developing a variety of race-neutral techniques.
Some dropped the “legacy” advantage given to descendants of alumni, who are mostly white. Some increased financial aid and considered socioeconomic factors. Florida and California granted admission to the top 10 percent of students in any high school, as did the Texas legislature. An ostensibly race-neutral system, it produced a slight uptick in the percentage of black and Latino students at the University of Texas at Austin, given de facto geographical segregation. The university also considered race in deciding on applicants falling below that 10 percent, and that’s the process under review at the Supreme Court as it reheard the case that it sent back to the Fifth Circuit for reconsideration in 2013.
The notion of giving a leg up to poor kids is not brand new. About ten years ago, it was the topic at a retreat in Aspen of admissions and financial aid officers from about thirty-five elite colleges belonging to the Consortium on Financing Higher Education. I was invited to speak, having just done a book on poverty, and the passion in the room was intense.
Some of the urge was autobiographical. The speaker before me, the dean of admissions at one of the country’s most exclusive colleges, asked the assembled gatekeepers how many of them had been the first in their families to attend college. About half raised their hands, stunning even themselves as they looked around at their colleagues.
But nothing much happened after that, according to the statistics. The good will could not overcome the problem of money. Only a handful of high-level institutions have rich enough endowments to guarantee that everyone accepted will receive whatever funding they need. Several remedies have been proposed: divert merit-based aid to need-based; increase state scholarships; award federal grants to universities that adopt class-based affirmative action programs.
A Supreme Court decision that snuffs out all but race-neutral techniques would presumably apply not only to state colleges but also to private universities that receive federal funding and are subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which courts have said in past opinions is coextensive with the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.
So the most socially useful way left for admissions officers to seek racial diversity would be to reach down into those lower socioeconomic levels and give kids of all races there a chance. That wouldn’t be a bad outcome. The danger is that the money won’t be invested in the country’s unfound talent.