How Looking at Class, Not Race, Can Improve College Admissions

A handful of states have found a better way to level the playing field.

Tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a case that will put to the test decades-old admissions policies favoring minorities at the nation’s public colleges and universities.

The plaintiff in the case, Abigail Noel Fisher—who is white—is suing the University of Texas on the grounds that she was denied admittance in 2008 due to the school’s policy of including race on its list of deciding factors for those students who aren’t automatically accepted.

The case calls into question the changing role of affirmative action in America and its continued viability as a government-sanctioned institution. In a nation that four years ago elected an African-American president, and where the highest court itself includes two justices of color, it’s a question that deserves more than a knee-jerk reaction bred of a legitimate desire to right old wrongs. On the other hand, in a country where a black boy can get shot in front of his own house because he’s wearing a hoodie, it’s senseless to promulgate the myth that America has achieved its goal of becoming a colorblind society.

Whatever the outcome, the discourse leading up to the court’s decision (which is not expected until 2013) is guaranteed to evince passions on both sides of the debate.

This is not the first time the issue of affirmative action has come before the Supreme Court. In 1978—in invalidating the University of California, Davis School of Medicine’s policy of reserving 16 of its 100 annual seats for minorities—the court ruled that race could be used as a “factor” in admissions, but established that using quotas violates the constitutional and civil rights of excluded applicants.

In 2003, the court upheld that threshold in Grutter v. Bollinger. In that case, Barbara Grutter, a white Michigan resident, failed to gain admission to the University of Michigan Law School despite having a 3.8 GPA and a score of 161 (out of 180) on the LSAT. Grutter argued that under the law school’s admission policy, “students from favored racial groups had a significantly greater chance of admission than students with similar credentials from disfavored racial groups”—a fact that she claimed violated her civil rights as a qualified white student.

A federal judge agreed, calling the law school’s admissions policy “practically indistinguishable from a quota system.”  That ruling was overturned on appeal, and in a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court concurred with the Appeals Court, finding that the school’s consideration of race was “narrowly tailored” and served the “compelling interest” of promoting diversity on campus.  But Grutter v. Bollinger marked a critical milestone in the evolution of affirmative action in public colleges by mandating that the goal of race-based admissions policies must be to bolster classroom diversity not make up for past discrimination.

While there are few people who would argue diversity on campus is not a good thing, there is strong evidence to suggest that, in 2012, there are better ways of fostering it than affirmative action based on race.

According to a study released last week by the progressive Century Foundation, dropping race in favor of class as a positive determinant for college admission is not only more suited for a society that is becoming increasingly divided along economic lines, it’s done little to change the level of ethnic diversity on campus, and in some cases has even boosted it.

An analysis of 10 universities in eight states that have abandoned racial preference in admissions policies reveals that an overwhelming majority have maintained a level of minority representation equal to or exceeding that which existed when they did use race as a factor. That’s because instead of race or ethnicity, many of these states are turning to policies that favor students based on socio-economic factors by placing less emphasis on standardized tests, promoting university partnerships with disadvantaged high schools, establishing class-based admissions policies, eliminating legacy admissions preferences that favor the rich, and expanding financial aid options, among other things.

Even though such policies are proven to work, they’ve received little support in the public discourse on affirmative action—both from liberals, who are afraid to take on the highly charged issue of race, and conservatives, who would prefer to dispense altogether with programs that undermine their belief that hard work is all it takes to get ahead in America.

According to Richard D. Kahlenberg, author of the Century Foundation report and the country’s most vocal proponent of class-based affirmative action, schools are equally reluctant to make the change because it threatens the status quo and requires a much higher level of commitment from administrators. By contrast, race-based affirmative action is easy.

“Producing racial and ethnic diversity without using the criteria of race is hard work and far less ‘efficient’ than simply providing an admissions preference based on skin color,” he writes. “Constructing race-neutral alternatives requires universities to take a number of steps that advocates of social equality have long championed, but that universities, fixated on prestige and rankings in U.S News & World Report, are not eager to pursue.”

As a result, affirmative action focused on class instead of race is largely limited to the states—specifically, Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, California and Florida—that have banned the use of ethnicity as a determining factor in college admissions.

It’s profoundly naive to argue that America has become a nation where race no longer matters, but racism is more intricately entwined with classism than at any other time in our nation’s history. In 2012, poor white kids stand little better chance than their black counterparts of navigating the obstacles that have been placed in their way by socio-economic conditions. I see it every day in my own neighborhood. And yet evidence suggests that race-based affirmative action does little to help poor kids—regardless of their skin color.