The Next Step in Affirmative Action

Do the Washington Monthly’s college rankings make the case for class-based admissions?

One would think that economic diversity would be a fairly uncontroversial goal, particularly in higher education, which prides itself on a liberal outlook and commitment to the related goal of racial diversity. But as Richard Sander, a UCLA Law professor, told me a number of years ago for an article in the Washington Monthly, “only one out of every 20 people I’ve talked to in the legal academy attach value to the idea of economic diversity.” He continued, “Schools that are willing to throw themselves into the fire to preserve racial effects act like class-based affirmative action is if anything a bad thing.”

Some professors appear to have disdain for white working class students, who may not share their world view on cultural matters. Others may worry that low income and working class students of all races will need remedial work, even though new research from William Bowen, Matthew Chingos and Michael McPherson shows that many talented low income and working class students “undermatch,” attending universities that are less selective than the top schools they could get into.

Interestingly, one thing that does seem to motivate schools to take on the issue of class is when they lose the ability to use race as an admissions criterion. Indeed, in the Monthly’s 2009 college rankings, public institutions in states that have banned race-based affirmative action—California, Florida, Michigan, and Washington—generally do quite well on the social mobility index.

Among the 258 national universities listed in the Washington Monthly’s rankings, five of the top 10 in the social mobility category are located in California, which banned racial preferences in 1996. The top 75 also include Florida A&M (9), UC Irvine (15), UC Santa Barbara (18), Michigan State University (32), the University of Florida (33), the University of Washington (38), U.C. Santa Cruz (45), Florida State University (69), and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (70). Likewise, Texas A&M at College Station, which uses neither racial preferences nor legacy preferences, comes in at 53.

The Monthly ranks social mobility by examining the percentage of Pell Grant recipients enrolled at a school, as well the school’s predicted and actual graduation rates (based on average SAT scores), taking into account the fact that Pell Grant recipients are less likely to graduate than other students—for more information see the Monthly‘s note on its rankings methodology. The Pell data are mostly from 2007-08, prior to the November 2008 adoption of a ban on affirmative action by a fifth state, Nebraska.

How is it possible that schools in states that have eliminated racial affirmative action generally do quite well on the social mobility index? On balance, race-based affirmative action programs should produce marginally more economic diversity than should providing no affirmative action. (Even though black affirmative action beneficiaries are often wealthy, they usually attend college with even wealthier white classmates, according to research by William Bowen and Derek Bok.) But the choice isn’t between race-based affirmative action and no affirmative action. To their credit, universities in states that banned racial affirmative action have turned to economic affirmative action programs as a way to boost racial diversity indirectly.

The University of California employs “comprehensive review”—examining academic accomplishments in light of such obstacles as “low family income, first generation to attend college,” and “disadvantaged social or educational environment.” The University of Washington looks at academic achievement in the context of such factors as “family income, number in family, parents’ educational level, [and] high school free lunch percent.” The University of Florida uses a program called “Profile Assessment,” which provides a leg up to “students who are poor, attend a low performing high school, or whose parents didn’t attend college.” The University of Michigan asks applicants to detail parents’ education, occupation, and income, whether an applicant comes from a single parent home, and whether a grandparent attended college. Most universities, by contrast, do not consider such an array of factors.

Of course, association doesn’t prove causation. It may be that the demographics in California, Florida, Washington, and Michigan contribute to the strong showing on the Monthly‘s social mobility metrics. And not all institutions that ban affirmative action do well on social mobility. The University of Georgia, which no longer uses race in admissions, ranks in the middle (137) on the social mobility index. But as David Leonhardt noted in an article in The New York Times Magazine a few years ago, bans on affirmative action have encouraged universities to take additional steps that appear to enhance greater social mobility.

Critics of class-based affirmative action have long argued that programs that use economic admissions criteria do not produce as much racial diversity as programs that use race instead. Schools like U.C. Berkeley, for example, saw a decline in black and Hispanic enrollment after the ban on race-based affirmative action was put in place. But the data show that economic affirmative action can produce a positive racial dividend. According to a 2004 Century Foundation study by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, among the most selective 146 institutions in the country, using race-based affirmative action produced student bodies whose combined black and Latino representation was 12 percent. If students were admitted strictly based on grades and test scores, the combined proportion would decline to 4 percent, Carnevale and Rose found. But using economic affirmative action, defined by parents’ income, education, and occupation, and high school quality, produced a black and Latino representation of 10 percent. Research suggests using wealth (assets) as an admissions factor could boost the racial dividend further. Class-based affirmative action, in other words, does improve racial diversity, though not as much as policies that use race as a criterion.

Carnevale and Rose also found that at these selective 146 institutions—the vast majority of which use race-based affirmative action—low income students were very scarce. Fully 74 percent of students came from the richest socioeconomic quartile and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile. Carnevale and Rose found that race-based affirmative action roughly tripled the representation of blacks and Hispanics, but that low income students received no leg up. Likewise, William Bowen—a strong supporter of race-based affirmative action—found that at 19 selective institutions, being black, Latino or Native American increased one’s chances of being admitted by 28 percentage points, but coming from a low-income family didn’t help at all.

Sadly, as William Benn Michael has noted, the debate in higher education is mostly about what color skin the rich kids will have. It would be nice to think that the Washington Monthly‘s effort to highlight social mobility will help nudge universities to care about recruiting and graduating low income students, just as they rightly care about recruiting and graduating underrepresented minorities.

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Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice, and is working on a book on economic segregation in housing and education.