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September 30, 2009 12:11 PM The Next Step in Affirmative Action

Do the Washington Monthly's college rankings make the case for class-based admissions?

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

Critics of class-based affirmative action have long argued that programs that use economic admissions criteria do not produce as much racial diversity as programs that use race instead. Schools like U.C. Berkeley, for example, saw a decline in black and Hispanic enrollment after the ban on race-based affirmative action was put in place. But the data show that economic affirmative action can produce a positive racial dividend. According to a 2004 Century Foundation study by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, among the most selective 146 institutions in the country, using race-based affirmative action produced student bodies whose combined black and Latino representation was 12 percent. If students were admitted strictly based on grades and test scores, the combined proportion would decline to 4 percent, Carnevale and Rose found. But using economic affirmative action, defined by parents’ income, education, and occupation, and high school quality, produced a black and Latino representation of 10 percent. Research suggests using wealth (assets) as an admissions factor could boost the racial dividend further. Class-based affirmative action, in other words, does improve racial diversity, though not as much as policies that use race as a criterion.

Carnevale and Rose also found that at these selective 146 institutions—the vast majority of which use race-based affirmative action—low income students were very scarce. Fully 74 percent of students came from the richest socioeconomic quartile and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile. Carnevale and Rose found that race-based affirmative action roughly tripled the representation of blacks and Hispanics, but that low income students received no leg up. Likewise, William Bowen—a strong supporter of race-based affirmative action—found that at 19 selective institutions, being black, Latino or Native American increased one’s chances of being admitted by 28 percentage points, but coming from a low-income family didn’t help at all.

Sadly, as William Benn Michael has noted, the debate in higher education is mostly about what color skin the rich kids will have. It would be nice to think that the Washington Monthly’s effort to highlight social mobility will help nudge universities to care about recruiting and graduating low income students, just as they rightly care about recruiting and graduating underrepresented minorities.

Richard D. Kahlenberg , a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice" and the editor of "The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy."