Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 7, Number 3

Diversity Digest
Volume 7,
Number 3

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Diversity News
Diversity and Democracy:
the Unfinished Work
Dimensions of Diversity: Legal Lessons from the Decisions
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Longhorn Scholars and the Opportunity Scholarship Program
Bridging the Gap: The ACE Program in Arizona
Aimed for Success: Meyerhoff Scholars Program
Campus Community Involvement
UCLA’s Success in Reaching Out
Student Experience
Rallying for Affirmative Action:
A Student Perspective
The Class is Half Empty: Report Supports Class-based Affirmative Action
Affirmative Action Resources

The Class Is Half Empty: Report Supports Class-Based Affirmative Action

By Kathy Goodman, communications associate, AAC&U

Many sectors of society—from educators to the U.S. military to corporate America—closely watched the recent Supreme Court cases on affirmative action. Prior to the announcement of the Supreme Court decisions, The Century Foundation (TCF) released an Issue Brief by Anthony Carnevale and Richard Kaufman that explores three possible forms of admissions that colleges can pursue: race-based, class-rank, and economic.

Prior to the recent Supreme Court decisions, three states that outlawed race-conscious admissions developed a class-rank admissions policy in their public universities: California, Texas, and Florida.

Each is explored within the context of seven criteria—fairness, racial and economic diversity, graduation rates, legality, politics, application to undergraduate and graduate education nationwide, enforcement, and cost.

In exploring the application of these three forms of admissions policies, TCF explicitly focuses on admissions to the top 146 colleges in the country because, according to the brief, these selective universities provide advantages such as a higher likelihood of graduation, increased access to graduate school, and higher wages in the workforce.

Race-Conscious Admissions
Most selective colleges and universities in the U.S. use some form of race-conscious admissions policies. But as we well know, the use of race in admissions has been hotly contested. The TCF brief states that one reason that using race/ethnicity as a criteria is considered unfair by many is that it helps only individuals who are disadvantaged by virtue of their racial/ethnic background rather than those who might be disadvantaged in other ways.
Despite this criticism, the TCF brief points out the advantages race-conscious admissions policies such as an increase in racial and economic diversity in student population, high graduation rates of students of color at selective universities, low cost to use the policy, and applicability to any admissions program—undergraduate or graduate.

Overall, the TCF brief argues that current race-based admissions policies are beneficial but they lack perceived elements of fairness and will likely continue to face political and legal challenges. They find class-rank admissions policies to be even more problematic.

Class-Rank Admissions
Prior to the recent Supreme Court decisions, three states that outlawed race-conscious admissions developed a class-rank admissions policy in their public universities: California, Texas, and Florida (see Diversity Digest Volume 7, No. 1, 2 for other analyses of these programs). In these states, students ranked at a certain percentile of their class are automatically accepted into the public universities in those states, regardless of other factors such as standardized test scores.

While on the surface this method may appeal to one’s sense of fairness, it ignores additional achievement factors such as students who may have slightly lower grades, but a high SAT score, or students with lower grades because of taking a more challenging curricula. It also completely ignores non-academic factors and favors students from well-off backgrounds. The TCF brief states that “data suggest that the economically better off students disproportionately benefit from the class rank approach.”

The TCF brief also argues that the class-rank plans have had mixed results in increasing diversity and potential for increasing dropout rates. Percentage plans also may work within states, but are difficult to systematize for students applying out-of-state, at private institutions, or for graduate programs.

T he TCF brief found few compelling reasons to advocate for class-rank admissions programs and instead advocated for economic affirmative action as a method to overcome many of the obstacles created by race-based and class-rank admissions.

Economic-Based Admissions
Economic-based admissions—admission based on criteria related to the student’s financial background—are practiced at varying levels, especially where race-based admissions have been disallowed. Criteria taken into account under this method include factors such as low family income, number of family members, parent’s educational level, attendance at a low-performing high school, and participation in a free lunch program in high school.

According to the TCF brief, this form of admissions is not only more fair than other methods, but it also contributes to both racial and economic diversity without a drop in graduation rates. TCF argues that legally, economic justifications are easier to defend, and politically, they are more likely to withstand public debate. Additionally, economic-based standards are easy to apply to any college or university, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels and enforcement is simpler because it is based on information already collected during the financial aid process.
The one potential drawback to economic-based admissions as outlined in the TCF brief is that they cost more. However, this is a necessary outcome: if more economically disadvantaged students are admitted to college, more financial support is required.

The TCF brief advocates this method as a supplement rather than a replacement for race-based admissions where possible. The authors of the report admit that economic affirmative action cannot increase racial/ethnic diversity to the extent that traditional affirmative action methods have. They also suggest using a wide-range of criteria for implementing this method of admissions, including (1) parental income, (2) parental occupation(s), (3) parental education, (4) single parent household, (5) wealth or net worth, (6) neighborhood concentrations of poverty, and (7) school concentrations of poverty or other measure of school quality.

Cautions and Conclusions
While the TCF brief presents some compelling arguments, it is important to approach them with caution. The brief points out the need for increased financial support as more economically disadvantaged students are admitted to college, but it neglects academic, social, and cultural support that will also be necessary to ensure that these students are prepared adequately to succeed in college. Students who arrive underprepared, students with pressures to work and attend college at the same time, students who represent a racial minority in the college or town, and students who are the first in their family to attend college, all require resources that more traditional college students may not. If one agrees that colleges should admit these students—then it follows that the colleges must also provide the resources necessary for their success.

The TCF brief makes a compelling case for economic affirmative action. Racial affirmative action is likely to continue to be under attack. Economic affirmative action extends the larger goal of opening access to opportunity for underserved students. While we have seen an outcry against the perceived unfairness in providing increased opportunity based on race and ethnicity, TCF believes the outcry is likely to be far less if the opportunity is provided to students with financial disadvantages regardless of race. Further, they believe that legal challenges are likely to be fewer for economic affirmative action, yet many students of color are likely to be served under such a policy.

The Century Foundation’s publications can be viewed on their Web site: www.tcf.org.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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