The U.S. Supreme Court is getting ready to decide a huge affirmative action case, and many legal watchers believe the justices will limit race-based preferences in college admissions.
The death of affirmative action might not be such a bad thing for diversity, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Century Foundation.
While many liberals supported affirmative action when it was first implemented in the 1960s, a lot of people don’t like the way it’s played out. Colleges have gone to great lengths to make their campuses racially diverse but have largely ignored economic diversity.
The result is that colleges have a lot of rich kids. At America’s most competitive schools, 70% of the students come from the richest 25% of U.S. families, Jordan Weissmann reported in an Atlantic piece about colleges’ “rich kid problem.”
“Universities, what they do today … is they tend to put together classes that include fairly wealthy students of all colours,” Kahlenberg says. “In the extreme, a class-blind, race-based preference system means that Barack Obama’s children deserve a preference in admissions.”
Colleges have a couple of motivations for ignoring economic diversity. For one thing, racial diversity is more visible than economic diversity.
“If you’re a college that lacks diversity and someone walks around campus, it’s embarrassing,” Kahlenberg told us.
The other motivation for having a lot of rich kids is economic. Simply put, poor kids need more financial aid. But many universities will step up and give poorer students financial aid if the Supreme Court does away with or limits affirmative action, according to Kahlenberg.
Seven states have already banned affirmative action. Colleges there have found ways to stay racially diverse, according to a recent Century Foundation report by Kahlenberg. Many have increased financial aid and started explicitly giving a preference to students from poorer backgrounds.
The University of California system — which was barred from using raced-based affirmative action in 1998 — considers prospective students’ economic backgrounds and takes students from the top of their classes around the state.
The proportion of blacks and Hispanics in the system reached 24% in 2008, up from 18% in 1997 before affirmative action was banned in California.
There’s still “a broad overlap between race and class in our society,” Kahlenberg points out. In light of that fact, he says, making college more economically diverse makes them more racially diverse too. Class-based affirmative action also creates a more talented pool of students.
“If we’re trying to identify the most talented students who have the most potential, you should look not only at their raw academic portfolio but also at what obstacles they’ve had to overcome,” Kahlenberg said.
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