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Class-Based Affirmative Action

Class-Based Affirmative Action
Battle over race-conscious approaches pushes idea to the surface
By Ronald Roach

In an effort to highlight and promote race-neutral approaches to college and graduate school admissions at competitive institutions, the Bush administration has recently put a bright spotlight on the idea of class-based or economic affirmative action. Touted by Bush officials as a race-neutral alternative to race-conscious affirmative action, class-based programs pay careful attention to the social and economic background of applicants seeking admission into competitive colleges and graduate school programs. They provide a boost to those applicants who have demonstrated achievement while having had to overcome social and economic disadvantages.

The publication of a U.S. Department of Education report and an Education Department conference on race-neutral admissions plans have followed the administration’s January filing of an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court outlining the administration’s opposition to race-conscious affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan.

“The early data is heartening. It suggests that many university doors have now opened to rural and low-income students who never before had a prayer of attending those schools. Where once students from a small number of high schools held the monopoly on elite colleges, students from low-income and low-performing schools are now winning admission,” declared U.S. Education Secretary Roderick Paige at the Education Department’s conference in late April of the effect of economic affirmative action programs and percent plans, the most recognized of race-neutral admissions plans.

Unlike percent plans, economic affirmative action plans require close examination of the circumstances of individual applicants seeking admission to college and graduate school programs. Useful to public colleges but impractical for private institutions, the percent admissions plans are based on students’ high school class ranking and don’t apply to college students and others seeking admission to graduate school.

Not surprisingly, public officials and policy activists are touting the idea of economic affirmative action because it appears that programs can be tailored by institutions to sidestep shortcomings of the percent plans. Economic affirmative action gets favorable yet cautious reviews from both the supporters and opponents of race-conscious affirmative action. Supporters of race-conscious admissions typically don’t oppose the class-based programs but want to see them combined with and not replace race-conscious affirmative action. Opponents of race-conscious admissions generally welcome the class-conscious programs because they argue the plans don’t have the legal and moral barriers they say exist with race-conscious affirmative action.

Arguably the nation’s chief proponent of class-based affirmative action in higher education admissions, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the New York City-based Century Foundation, says that class-based affirmative action represents the fairest way to achieve racial diversity in highly competitive higher education admissions. Though he supports the use of race-conscious affirmative action when there’s only a choice between it and an admissions system based solely on individual test scores and grades, Kahlenberg hopes to see class-based admissions programs replace those that are race-conscious.

“Americans have always been uncomfortable with racial preference schemes such as that used at Michigan, which automatically adds 20 bonus points out of a possible 150 to every minority candidate’s application. Why should Vernon Jordan’s kids get a break?” Kahlenberg wrote this past March in the Washington Post.

“In practice, affirmative action programs often benefit the most advantaged students of color. (Former college presidents) William Bowen and Derek Bok found that 86 percent of Black students at the 28 elite universities they studied were from middle- or upper-status families,” according to Kahlenberg.

On the other hand, proponents of race-conscious affirmative action are skeptical that class-based programs alone can produce a sufficient presence of Blacks, Latinos and American Indians in highly competitive higher education admissions. Ted Shaw, the associate director and counsel of the New York City-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says “it’s legitimate to consider economic status” as the basis for affirmative action in higher education, but argues that class-based approaches should not replace race-conscious programs. During the proceedings of the Michigan undergraduate reverse discrimination lawsuit, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund represented a group of minority students who had joined the case as intervenors. Though the Supreme Court did not allow the minority student intervenors to have their oral arguments presented, they had intervened originally because it was claimed that striking down the undergraduate affirmative action plan would limit the academic opportunities of the students.

“Race and class overlap, but they are not the same thing,” Shaw says.


Elite colleges and universities say they strive to have economic, as well as racial diversity among the students they admit, but as a matter of practice such schools fall far short of having economically diverse student bodies, according to Kahlenberg, who is the author of the 1996 book The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action.

A report commissioned by the Century Foundation entitled “Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity and Selective College Admissions” found that at the most selective 146 colleges and universities 3 percent of the undergraduates at those schools are from families in the bottom quartile for socioeconomic status and 10 percent are from the bottom half. Though Blacks and Latinos were 28 percent of all 18 year olds in 1995, they represent only 12 percent of the freshmen students attending the top 146 colleges, according to the report.

Elite schools “are more interested in producing racial diversity” than they are in having economic diversity, Kahlenberg says.

He points out that economic affirmative action plans are largely being tried in states where “race-based affirmative action is illegal or has been banned.” In addition to the 4 percent plan in California, which guarantees the admission of students graduating in the top 4 percent of their high school into the University of California system, system schools also rely upon a “comprehensive review” for many applicants, which examine academic accomplishments in light of such obstacles as “low family income, first generation to attend college,” and “disadvantaged social or educational environment,” according to the University of California. The University of Washington investigates academic achievement in the context of factors, such as family income, number in family and parents’ educational attainment. And the University of Florida’s Profile Assessment program provides a boost to students who are poor, attend a low-performing high school, or whose parents didn’t attend college.

“To me, economic affirmative action is likely to become more attractive to universities if the University of Michigan’s plan is struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Kahlenberg says, noting that such a move by the court would likely end race-conscious affirmative action.

According to the Century Foundation report, which is co-authored by senior researchers Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale and Dr. Stephen Rose, the implementation of economic affirmative action at the 146 top schools could increase their share of students in the bottom half of socioeconomic status from 10 percent to 38 percent. Under a class-based system that replaces race-conscious programs, Black and Latino representation would fall from 12 percent to 8 percent or 9 percent, according to Carnevale.

Kahlenberg says that if the court allows race-conscious affirmative action to stand, elite higher education institutions will not pursue class-based admissions programs beyond the token efforts they currently make. A broad-based effort to have economic affirmative action at elite schools would be expensive, Kahlenberg notes. His view implies that the schools would only undertake the expense if it produced some measure of racial diversity on their campuses.

“It’s not cheap. If schools admit a larger number of low-income students they need to provide financial aid for them,” Kahlenberg says.

Opponents of race-conscious affirmative action say there are good reasons to support economic affirmative action even though they believe that the motivation behind such a widespread movement would spring from the intent of institutions to achieve racial diversity. As a result, a number of the opponents also oppose race-neutral alternatives, such as the percent plans, because they are picked by schools or state university systems with the intent to preserve racial diversity. There’s a willingness, however, among the anti-affirmative action crowd to consider class-based approaches, particularly in comparison to percent plans.

“I think it makes sense for colleges to take into account the life circumstances of individual applicants. If there are two students that have equal test scores and grades, then it’s appropriate that admissions officers judge the one who has struggled against tough circumstances as more deserving than the individual who has grown up in privilege,” says Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Sterling, Va.-based Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), a leading advocacy group contesting race-conscious affirmative action.

Clegg says he opposes class-based approaches if they are implemented with the clear intent of achieving racial diversity. More troublesome to Clegg are the percent plans, which lead him to have reservations about the Bush administration’s embrace of race-neutral admissions alternatives.

“Percentage plans make no sense as a matter of policy. Why would (schools) ignore everything in an applicant’s file except for class rank. It makes no sense to ignore teacher recommendation, SAT scores, leadership ability and even grades,” he says.

Curt Levey, director of legal and public affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights (CIR), says his organization, which has represented plaintiffs in the University of Michigan undergraduate case, is “supportive” of class-based affirmative action. “It’s clearly legal as long as it’s not a scheme to racial gerrymander” the makeup of college student bodies, he says.

States and individual colleges and universities have a free hand to adopt class-based affirmative action plans and not have to worry whether they would be challenged and overturned in the courts, according to Levey.

“I think the courts are going to be very deferential to class-based affirmative action,” Levey says.

Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund says he questions “the sincerity of conservatives” who back the idea of economic affirmative action.

“It’s significant that class-based affirmative action never arose on its merits. It’s only being considered now when there’s an attack on race-conscious affirmative action,” Shaw notes. “(The conservative anti-affirmative action activists) are the same people who have waged war on poor people with social policy.”

Carnevale, who is vice president for public leadership at the Educational Testing Service, says it surprised him to a degree that people reacted largely positive to the Century Foundation report’s findings even as he and his co-author urged that race-conscious affirmative action be maintained along with class-based programs. Carnevale says the public has largely responded to the ideas about what schools can do to develop class-based affirmative action initiatives.

“People are universally agreeing that the disadvantaged should be rewarded for their achievement. It’s a basic American value,” he says.

Carnevale says he thinks the wholesale replacement of race-conscious affirmative action by class-based programs would be a devastating move given that Blacks and Latinos are fast growing segments of the U.S. population. In 2015, Black and Latinos are expected to be 29 percent of the college population, which is a 5 percent increase over the 2000 total, according to Carnevale.

Given that class-based programs would result in a decrease in Black and Latino representation at the top 146 schools, “we’d be going backwards,” Carnevale says.

“This approach of class-based programs alone says racial justice is no longer a priority. It’s an abandonment of the civil rights agenda,” Carnevale declares.


Harvard law school professor Lani Guinier says the debate around class-based and race-conscious affirmative action represents a narrow discussion that should be properly refocused on the mission of higher education and, more specifically, elite public institutions.

“(Higher education) admissions criteria fundamentally prefer wealth and yet we call it merit. Just admitting a few more people of color or a few more poor students doesn’t change the bigger problem,” Guinier says. “We need to be having a discussion about whether higher education is realizing its public democratic mission.”

The current regime of admissions at elite schools is the result of a failed effort at producing a meritocratic system in which graduates would largely be inspired to pursue public service, she argues. What American society has now with students coming out of elite schools “is a very self-centered and highly individualized view of merit,” according to Guinier.

Wealthy people in the past had “a sense that they had to give back to the larger community,” but that spirit has been lost because the current system encourages students at the most competitive colleges and universities to feel they are “entitled” to enjoy, for and by themselves, the wealth and status that comes from their credentials, she says.

“The students are disproportionately affluent, and, the claim of meritocracy, perhaps unwittingly, conveys this sense of exaggerated entitlement. As a result, many well-to-do students at public colleges and universities — whose education is being subsidized by all the taxpayers of a state — are less likely to pursue public service,” Guinier explains.

Kahlenberg, who has taught constitutional law at George Washington University and considers himself a liberal Democrat, has the perspective that higher education can substantially improve upon its commitment to social justice by embracing class-based affirmative action. As a former political aide to retired U.S. Senator Charles Robb of Virginia, he readily sees the parallels between how elite schools have taken great efforts to pursue racial diversity and how the Democratic party and progressive political groups have opted to back racially focused affirmative action.

That focus on the part of Democrats and progressives has helped enable Republicans and conservatives to build some of their support on the basis of racial politics, according to Kahlenberg.

“There’s a lot of ways at getting at social justice. Affirmative action is a fairly narrow issue, but it’s a symbolic one that needs addressing,” he says.

Kahlenberg says that while there are parallels between national politics and higher education practices over the past three decades, the motive for reforming higher education on affirmative action should not be seen as a political issue.

“My primary motive in backing economic affirmative action is that it’s the fairest path,” he says.

The Century Foundation report can be viewed by accessing>.

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