The Supreme Court is set to decide soon on Fischer v University of Texas. The court will likely focus on whether the university has reached a “critical mass” of minority students (enough that minority students no longer feel isolated), the test put forward in the seminal affirmative action case, Grutter v Bollinger. Many observers believe it appears likely the court will ultimately bar public universities from using race in their admissions policies. It will therefore be all the more important for universities to adopt a system of affirmative action based on socioeconomic status..

According to a recent study by the Century Foundation, one is twenty-five times as likely to run into a rich student as a poor one at the nation’s top 146 colleges.

It was not always like this. A 2011 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski finds “even among those who had the same measured cognitive skills as teenagers, inequality in college entry and completion across income groups is greater today than it was two decades ago.” Between 1979 and 1997, “the gap in the college entry rate between the bottom- and top-income quartiles increased from thirty-nine to fifty-one percentage points.” This shift is largely due to financial difficulty, largely because of the high cost of college education, and not cognitive ability.

Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz find that educational disparities are largely responsible for the recent increase in income inequality. Income inequality further perpetuates poverty by making it harder for poor students to escape from poverty. In 2012 Alan Krueger presented what he described as the “Great Gatsby Curve,” reproduced below, which shows the correlation between inequality and social mobility.

Basically, the greater the difference between rich and poor in a society, the harder it is to become rich if you’re born poor.

This isn’t that surprising, but education can help fix that problem. The key to mobility is a college education, so the best way for college to alleviate the growing inequality and thereby increase social mobility would be to adopt socio-economic affirmative action. SES AA is already practiced by some colleges. Public universities in California, engage in a “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 system has increased overall diversity. The Century Foundation finds, “The proportion of blacks and Latinos who made up new freshman initially declined from 18 percent in 1997 to 15 percent in 1998,but by 2008, it reached 24 percent.”

A 2008 study by Matthew Gaertner at University of Colorado Boulder finds that SES AA may be an effective replacement for race-based AA. Gaertner studied what would happen if UC Boulder replaced its race-based affirmative action program with a class-based alternative system. The SES model would, when examining the grades of students, it take into account the socio-economic status of the student and her school, whether English is a first language, whether the student grew up in a single-parent home and compares the student’s scores to the scores of other students he attended. The result, of this system Gaertner writes, was that

low-SES [socio-economic status] applicants and those identified for additional consideration under the Metrics are more likely to be admitted under class-based than under race-based affirmative action. Finally, underrepresented minority (URM) applicants (i.e., Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans) are more likely to be admitted under the class-based approach than under the race-based policy.

Other researchers have replicated Gaertner’s findings. A recent Century Foundation study finds, “seven of the ten universities examined using race-neutral plans—UT Austin, Texas A&M, the University of Washington, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Arizona—the representation of African Americans and Latinos met or exceeded the levels achieved when the universities had used racial preferences.” This publication’s college rankings confirm this finding. Richard D. Kahlenberg writes, “Among the 258 national universities listed in the Washington Monthly’s ranking, five of the top 10 in the social mobility category are located in California, which banned racial preferences in 1996.”

Class-based affirmative action, in fact, might be very useful even if race-based affirmative action remains in place. Another recent Century Foundation study finds that, “socioeconomically disadvantaged students are expected to score 399 points lower on the math and verbal SAT than the most socioeconomically advantaged, while blacks are expected to score 56 points lower than whites.” The country is leaving behind a large portion of its citizens and rendering the promise of the American Dream a farce.

Socioeconomic affirmative action is not a new idea. In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested it in his Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, writing “While Negroes form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill.” He’s right, and it’s time for a policy that allows all disadvantaged children a better chance to participate in the American Dream.

Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is a Research Associate at Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @SeanMcElwee.