SAN FRANCISCO ― Class-based affirmative action programs can do more to increase socioeconomic mobility than
race-based programs alone, according to sociology professor Sigal Alon of Tel-Aviv University, speaking recently at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education where she presented her book Race, Class, and Affirmative Action.
In the book, Alon compared the quality and effectiveness of affirmative action policies in the United States and Israel, and arrived at conclusions that have caused American administrators to take notice. For starters, said Alon, the polarized debate over affirmative action that pits “those who are rooting for racial preferences [against] those who are rooting for class-based preferences” misses the bigger picture: to expand diversity and address inequality.
“There is no silver bullet, no one prototype, whether race-based or class-based affirmative action, to deal simultaneously with all aspects of inequality. We’re not going to find a solution in any one of these policies,” she said. Rather, institutions should be looking for “a hybrid design that combines different elements” of affirmative action models.
One place to look for success in these programs, she said, is Israel. Alon, who studies social stratification and mobility with a focus on class, gender and racial-ethnic inequalities in education, looked at an innovative class-based affirmative action policy enacted over the last decade at one of Israel’s leading institutions. The program, which targeted disadvantaged students from poor high schools and neighborhoods, remains the first and only race-neutral, class-based affirmative action plan implemented worldwide — one in which the ethnic origin of applicants was not considered.
In Alon’s study, 55 percent of the people who benefited from class-based affirmative action came from Israel’s two main ethnic minority groups: Israeli Arabs and Mizrahi Jews, whose roots are Sephardic. “Had the program looked at ethnicity, it would have all gone to these two groups,” said Alon. A follow-up to that program, in 2012 in Brazil, saw the enactment of an even newer affirmative action model based on the Law of Social Quotas, which mandated that public universities reserve half their slots for low-income students from public high schools.
Brazil’s program wasn’t race-neutral, but race-sensitive, said Alon, and both countries managed to adopt hybrid designs, “cross-breeds that incorporate elements from different prototypes, which give greater potential to generate broad diversity.”
Now, based on those countries’ experience, she suggested it is time that American universities reevaluate race-based affirmative action, and “start thinking about how we need to design such a hybrid affirmative action policy — because if we want institutions to have a student body with diverse background, we need to start asking ourselves what kind of diversity we want, and what are the elements we should focus on in order to include students from all walks of life.”
Even with a hybrid program such as Israel’s or Brazil’s, schools will still fall short in solving all aspects of diversity. “As the evidence shows, tradeoffs are unavoidable,” said Alon. But, “given the rising income inequality and declining chances of economic mobility, the race-based affirmative action model we have is just not sustainable and, I should add, it is unjust.”
Shortly before his death in February, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made headlines when he asserted that many African-Americans would be better served going to “less-advanced” schools and being put in a “a slower-track school where they do well.” But according to Alon, this “mismatch hypothesis” — which posits that racial minorities who benefit from affirmative action are mismatched to their institutions — is flat-out wrong.
“Scalia’s position doesn’t add up. They wouldn’t be better off going to less-selective schools,” she said. “The social science on this question is very clear and strong, and the evidence is robust: there is no merit in the ‘mismatch hypothesis.’ A few people with an agenda are saying the opposite, with no support.”
Race-based affirmative action has proven successful at generating race-based diversity, said Alon. But in her research, she found that college test scores decline with race-based affirmative action, “whereas if it’s class-based, scores go up. If American elite institutions decide to move from race to class in affirmative action, they’re not going to jeopardize their academic selectivity: replace racial selection with class selection and the test scores rise.”
Currently about 16 percent of students at elite U.S. universities are Black or Hispanic. That number will decline to about 10 percent if affirmative action programs move from a race-based to a class-based model. By contrast, if programs shift to hybrids that target race within class, focusing primarily on family income, the share of students from poor families attending elite universities will rise from 9 percent to about 14 percent. “If you have a policy focusing on income inequality, it will be good for boosting economic diversity,” she said, and ethnic diversity will also be higher by incorporating a race-sensitive, rather than a race-neutral, class-based approach.
“We will never be able to maintain the level of racial and ethnic diversity without direct racial and ethnic preferences. This is something we have to acknowledge: there will be a decline [in diversity],” Alon said. “But we want to minimize this decline in the share of minority students while we see gains in socioeconomic diversity, so that overall we’re getting a better package.”
Going further, if elite U.S. institutions eliminated all preferences in favor of deeper structural reforms to tuition, financial aid and admission policies, they could maintain their levels of racial and ethnic diversity — and possibly even increase them — while simultaneously creating greater economic diversity.
According to Alon, neither race-based nor class-based models of affirmative action, in themselves, will produce the diversity our societies seek. But by staying with the U.S. status quo especially, “the policy is not going to fulfill its promise or potential. Affirmative action is a key vehicle of socioeconomic mobility for disenfranchised students, whether ethnic minority or poor students. The debate is: who is going to get access to these mobility dividends?”