Affirmative Action, the Money Kind

Maybe racial affirmative action doesn’t really work quite so effectively anymore. According to an article by Mary Beth Marklein in USA Today:

Colleges and universities should adopt affirmative-action policies based on socioeconomic status, argues a new report that finds the most disadvantaged students on average score 784 points lower on the SAT than those from the wealthiest, most educated families.

“It doesn’t do any good to offer a generous financial aid package to low-income students if you don’t also admit them,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a longtime advocate of class-based preferences in admissions, and editor of Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College, published today by the Century Foundation.

Most selective colleges provide very generous financial aid to low income recipients but they don’t really consider financial aid in the admissions process. In fact, unless an applicant writes specifically about growing up poor in his essay, it’s hard for the college even to know about the student’s economic background.

As Kahlenberg points out, the barriers to academic and financial success are more closely associated with income than with race. This seems to indicate that a focus on income might be a better way for colleges to address inequity and promote a new form of diversity.

Factoring in only race in college admissions doesn’t really work so well as a way to improve the outcomes of the economically disadvantaged. It’s also fraught with controversies and inconsistencies. Most black students in elite colleges actually come from middle-class backgrounds. Despite the obvious benefits of diversity, many colleges now do not even bother to target Asian students precisely because Asian Americans are statistically wealthier than the rest of the population.

The “use income to promote diversity” public policy tactic is not easy, however. One of problems with this as a strategy might well be who a college defines as sociologically disadvantaged. It would be very easy to implement this policy badly. Are “the disadvantaged,” for instance, the actual poor or the merely unrich? While the poor are almost unknown at America’s top schools, the unrich are actually fairly rare there, too. But the unrich are very common in the rest of America’s colleges, indicating that affirmative action for such people would be unnecessary and perhaps counterproductive.

Read the highlights of Kahlenberg’s book here.

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