Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The case for real reform in college admissions

Class-based affirmative action can produce racial diversity – but only if legacy admissions end

December 10, 2015 2:00AM ET

The edge in elite college admissions given to African-Americans in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was one attempt to redress historic discrimination at a time of massive racial inequality and social upheaval. However, the legal rationale for affirmative action in higher education shifted in 1978, after the Supreme Court ruling in Bakke v. University of California, to promoting “broad diversity” — that is, a diversity that includes many factors, not just race and ethnicity. Nonetheless, elite institutions, while claiming to have opened the gates to students from all walks of life, have focused mainly on enhancing racial and ethnic diversity.

In the absence of consideration of other types of disadvantage, socioeconomic diversity at top colleges in the country has declined. Even as campuses remain focused on race, they are detached from the increasing class stratification in the United States and the eroding life chances of young people from the lower socioeconomic rungs.

Today, however, due to the growing controversy around these policies and recent Supreme Court rulings, affirmative action policy in higher education may be changing. The ruling in the current session of the Supreme Court hearing of Fisher v. University of Texas will likely pressure schools to find race-neutral ways of achieving diversity. The obvious alternative is class-based affirmative action — that is, policies that give an edge in college admissions to the socioeconomically disadvantaged. But can race-neutral, class-based affirmative action really generate broad diversity at elite schools?

In my forthcoming book “Race, Class, and Affirmative Action,” I study a race-neutral, class-based affirmative action policy that was implemented in the mid-2000s by four of Israel’s most selective universities, the first of its kind to be implemented in university admissions anywhere in the world. I compare the diversity dividends of this policy with what ethnic-based affirmative action could generate. Simultaneously, I examine U.S. race-based plans and assess how their outcomes measure up against those that could have been advanced by different models of class-based affirmative action. The findings from both countries are conclusive: Neither race-based nor class-based models by themselves can generate broad diversity.

Is there a way schools can have both broad diversity in their student body and race-neutrality in their admissions practices? Yes, but it will require radical reforms in admissions and tremendous financial investment.

The college admissions debates often leave out another form of admissions preferences at elite colleges: those for athletes and the children of alumni, professors, celebrities and wealthy parents. This elaborate system of preferences is long-standing and deeply established at America’s top colleges and universities, and benefits far more applicants than racial preferences do. But it turns out that if elite institutions eliminate these other types of preferences, they can achieve broad diversity with a strictly class-based affirmative action policy.

The broad diversity that the Supreme Court has sought through affirmative action is possible. The question is whether elite institutions are ready to contemplate such bold reform.

In fact, not only can race-neutral, class-based affirmative action replicate the current level of racial and ethnic diversity at elite institutions, it even has the potential to do better. For example, if we substitute preferences for legacies, athletes, wealthy students and black and Hispanic students with socioeconomic affirmative action, the share of minority students will remain almost intact, around 15-16 percent. This is much higher than what the class-based model can generate without eliminating these other preferences, which is around 10 percent.

At the same time, class-based affirmative action can also significantly boost socioeconomic and geographic diversity at bastions of privilege under a reform in admissions. For example, socioeconomic affirmative action increases economic diversity at elite colleges dramatically: the share of poor students triples. And all this is accomplished without jeopardizing academic selectivity — in fact, the test score average of the new student body is comparable to the current average.

Of course, implementing this kind of large-scale reform in admission criteria is no easy feat. The biggest obstacle is money: such reforms require making college more affordable, either by augmenting financial aid budgets or lowering tuition.

Even without eliminating legacy and other special preferences, a shift from race to class in affirmative action will require boosting financial aid budgets to support the increase of poor students at expensive schools. Race-based affirmative action is less expensive than a class-based approach because wealthy minorities also benefit from race-conscious admissions, which lowers the amount that needs to be devoted to financial aid. In short, socioeconomic diversity is expensive, and it will largely be left to colleges and universities to pick up the tab.

Such radical reform in admission practices would further aggravate financial pressures. Elite institutions would have to triple their financial aid budgets. Under this model, at least one out of three students at elite schools would require financial aid, which is double the share under the current system of preferences. Not only will financial aid allocations surge, but revenue will also fall due to fewer paying students and contributions from donors.

The broad diversity that the Supreme Court has sought through affirmative action is, in fact, possible. The question is whether elite institutions are ready to contemplate such bold reform, and whether they have sufficient resources to make it happen.

The Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas could be an opportunity to clarify the concept of broad diversity and to push for these reforms. Despite its mandate to focus on broad diversity, the Court has never been specific about how to achieve it. Even Justice Lewis Powell, who first outlined the diversity rationale in Bakke, left the details vague, calling for race to be one factor among many.

It is arguably inappropriate for the Court to come up with an admission formula — particularly given its deference to academic freedom. But a clearer message could serve as a wake-up call for selective colleges about the need to incorporate other aspects of diversity besides race into their admissions formulas. This, eventually, will force elite colleges and universities to confront an entrenched system of preferences for legacies, athletes and wealthy students.

Sigal Alon is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University and the author of the forthcoming book from the Russell Sage Foundation “Race, Class and Affirmative Action.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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