Class and Affirmative Action

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As Barack Obama said when campaigning for the White House, his own daughters probably should have no special consideration given for their race when applying for college and “we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education asks if it’s time for class-based affirmative action. This is a question that rattles around academia often. As blacks and other minorities now attend college in greater numbers many wonder if it’s time to reconsider college admissions.

George Leef, director of research at the conservative John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy says contemptuously in the Chronicle that:

Addressing this supposed problem with “class-based affirmative action” (that is, admitting into selective schools students who otherwise wouldn’t qualify on academic grounds, but who come from relatively poor families) would seem, if anything, to exacerbate it. Students who struggle in college because they can’t handle the combination of course work and part-time employment will not have an easier time if they’re enrolled at a more-selective institution, where the work is usually more difficult and the costs greater.

This seems to be missing the point. If the barrier to success in college has to do with the need to work it would seem obvious that the solution might be making colleges cheaper. Working full time is a recipe for college failure. The fact that low income students often operate this way is not indicative their inherent unsuitability for college; it means they can’t afford college as it’s currently priced.

Many of the commentators in the article ended up talking more about financial aid that about admissions preference per se. But NAACP Chairman Julian Bond took on the issue directly:

I think the time has long passed for adding socioeconomic status to the categories of affirmative action, but it must not and cannot be viewed as a replacement for race. Poverty is not a proxy for race, and to pretend that it is would eradicate the initial rationale for affirmative action—to correct for society’s demonstrable biases against people of color regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Affirmative action is a concept fraught with trouble. It is also wrong for addressing issues of class. Affirmative action exists to give special preferences to address past grievances in an effort to eliminate the societal inequalities based on race. Eventually affirmative action will not be necessary. But in term of class this is the wrong model. There will always be lower income people. The best way to get them to go to, and graduate from, college is not by creating special programs, it’s just to make college cheap. If they could afford it, they would go.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer