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'All the Black Kids at Harvard Are Rich,' and Other Dangerous Myths About Affirmative Action

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Why colleges should consider both race and class in admissions

| Corrected: February 28, 2019
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High school seniors will soon be showing up in droves for tours of college campuses, kicking off a new round of the higher-ed admissions scramble. Given the media coverage of the Harvard and University of North Carolina affirmative-action trials, guidance counselors may get questions about affirmative action policies from students and their families.

One common question is why campuses continue paying special attention to race and ethnicity in admissions: Can't they just focus on socioeconomic disadvantage? After all, low-income students are greatly underrepresented at elite schools. Just considering class instead of race sounds like an easy solution to achieving diversity.

"Socioeconomic diversity doesn't come from eliminating consideration of race, it comes from recognizing it."

Well, what do the data say? As a researcher who has extensively studied race and college admissions, I know that class-based affirmative action isn't enough, and it's not just an issue of racial diversity. Race matters for boosting economic diversity in higher education. Studies indicate that campuses are more socioeconomically diverse when colleges consider both race and class together, not just class alone.

Recent research suggests that the best way to expand low-income students' opportunities to study at top colleges is not to ban race but to look at it alongside class. In a groundbreaking study by Stanford University professor Sean Reardon and colleagues, the researchers' statistical simulations demonstrated that colleges get the most socioeconomic diversity when they strongly consider both race and class in the admissions process. Perhaps counter intuitively, socioeconomic diversity doesn't come from eliminating consideration of race, it comes from recognizing it.

Why would greater class diversity stem from recognizing both race and class? One word: intersectionality. The term was coined by a legal scholar, but has proved widely useful. Basically, it refers to the cumulative effects of discrimination or inequality from the ways in which racism, classism, or gender discrimination intersect. Ignore one trait that leads to inequality (e.g., race), and you are ill-equipped to tackle the problem of inequality broadly considered. Examine where the categories intersect, and you have a fuller view of the issue.

In the United States, economic inequality isn't race-neutral; it works in conjunction with race. According to the Urban Institute, in 2016, the average white family's wealth was seven times greater than the average black family's and five times greater than that of the average Latino family's. The racial wealth gap is real and persistent. An admissions system that considers only class without addressing race will fall short of fostering diversity, both racial and socioeconomic.

Don't believe the myth that all of the black kids at Harvard are rich. According to William Bowen and Derek Bok's now-classic defense of affirmative action at elite colleges, The Shape of the River, black students were seven times more likely to come from poor families than white students. Also, as you might guess, a much higher percentage of white students than black students fell into the top socioeconomic category (44 percent for whites, 15 percent for blacks).

A related misconception is that current policies give no weight to social class. Sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford found that class seemed to be an important factor in admissions at the 10 selective colleges they studied. "Private schools consistently [favor] candidates from lower- and working-class backgrounds over those from more privileged circumstances," they reported in their 2009 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal.

The evidence strongly suggests, they wrote, that "admission officers are awarding extra weight to nonwhite students from poor and working-class families—especially to those who are the closest to the bottom of the income distribution." Considering both race and class allows colleges to pay special attention to low-income students of color.

And relevant to the lawsuit charging that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants, Espenshade and Radford noted that low-income and working-class Asian-Americans were among those who were specially favored in the admissions process. Given my support of race-conscious admissions and as an Asian-American, I sometimes get asked, "Don't you care about poor Asian-American kids?" To which I answer, "Absolutely. And there's a good chance that they'd suffer under policies that don't consider race."

Espenshade and Radford's research undermines the claim that race-conscious admissions is actually detrimental to low-income students. Is it perfect? No. Could we have even more low-income students of all races? Absolutely. But to say that the current system ignores social class is blatantly wrong.

Admissions need work, and colleges need more low-income students of all races. Colleges should do more proactive outreach to a wider variety of high schools and not just the typical feeder schools. But boosting socioeconomic diversity is not going to come from banning race-conscious admissions. We have to look at both race and class, and eliminating consideration of race will only threaten our ability to close opportunity gaps for low-income students.

Vol. 38, Issue 23, Pages 20-21

Published in Print: February 27, 2019, as Why Class-Based Affirmative Action Isn't Enough
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Correction: 
A previous version of this piece misspelled Alexandria Radford's name.

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