Class-Based vs. Race-Based Admissions

November 18, 2012

Admissions policies that take class into account, rather than race, are getting a renewed push as a win-win solution. The contention is that they more fully serve the goal of diversity in higher education and provide a progressive way to resolve an enduring conflict that has now returned to the Supreme Court in a case about race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas at Austin.

But a crucial premise of the class-over-race argument is wrong. It is not possible to maintain the same level of racial diversity in higher education while applying a race-blind admissions policy. Class-based admissions generally reduce the number of black and Hispanic students. To maintain or build the levels of racial diversity on selective campuses, it is necessary to maintain race-conscious admissions.

While there are higher shares of blacks and Hispanics among low-income Americans, their smaller shares of the whole population mean that whites make up by far the largest portion of low-income families. As Alan Krueger, now head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, and his co-authors wrote in 2006, “The correlation between race and family income, while strong, is not strong enough to permit the latter to function as a useful proxy for race in the pursuit of diversity.”

Class-based policies can maintain the share of blacks and Hispanics at selective colleges and universities only if admissions policies also give an advantage to blacks and Hispanics that is not race-blind. That is also the finding of Anthony Carnevale and his co-authors, researchers relied on by advocates for class-based policies. Advocates may broaden the definition of social and economic disadvantage to include other factors, like speaking a foreign language at home, but these are proxies for ethnicity or race.

Harvard’s Thomas Kane found that selective colleges and universities using class-based admissions would have to save six times as many places for low-income students to maintain the same level of black and Hispanic students. (That was in 1997-8, but none of the core premises for that conclusion have changed much.) For colleges and universities committed to diversity, the right way to think about class- and race-conscious admissions is as complements rather than alternatives. Both are essential for a truly diverse campus.

Maintaining race-conscious admissions contributes significantly to campus diversity, while serving racial and social justice. Expanding class-conscious admissions significantly expands diversity while serving social and economic justice — though it also requires considerably more financial aid, which is why the wealthiest and most selective colleges and universities have more such diversity.

A benefit of the attention to class-based admissions policies is the spotlight it puts on how much education from kindergarten through college favors students with economic and social advantages. Those from the top fifth of households in income are at least seven times as likely to go to selective colleges as those in the bottom fifth. The achievement gap between high- and low-income groups is almost twice as wide as between whites and blacks.

But the disadvantage resulting from class status does not change the reality that blacks and Hispanics are also substantially underrepresented at selective colleges and universities. In 2004, they were 14.5 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of those graduating from high schools, but only 3.5 percent and 7 percent of those enrolling in selective colleges and universities. The underrepresentation has gotten worse over the past generation.

In 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admissions are constitutional if carefully carried out, it gave two basic reasons: they serve a compelling interest of society; and without them, selective colleges and universities would be much less diverse than they must be to serve that interest.

Shifts in American demographics since then have only reinforced this crucial need.