Will New Report Move Colleges Toward a Color-Blind Sense of Diversity?

Anti-affirmative action advocates (from both the left and right), have long said it was really all about class — not race — in the quest for equal opportunity in student admission.

How many times in the past did we hear complaints about the poor, rural kid from Appalachia not getting a break in admission while the Cosby kids got into Harvard?

Now as we all await the Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling that could change affirmative action, class advocates will be waving a new study to bolster their position.

The new report says low-income students — in spite of good grades and test scores — still don’t attend the most elite colleges in the country. That would be not just the Harvards and Yales, but all the mid-to small colleges that pride themselves as being the Harvard of the South, West, North and points in between.

Only 34 percent of low-income students (defined as students from family income under $41,472) attended the country’s 238 most selective colleges.

Meanwhile, 78 percent of students from families earning more than $120,776, attended the best schools.

The study is to be published in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, but the findings were reported in The New York Times.

There are some possible explanations for low-income students’ aversion to the elite schools. In some instances, students never heard of a school. (Do most people really know Washington University is in St. Louis?)

If they did know of a school, students didn’t know anyone like them who ever attended any of them. The schools were also both far away and pricey, which is why students more often than not stayed close to home — and attended schools with fewer resources and were far less challenging intellectually.

The upshot? A negative cherry on the cake, with more of these good students ultimately dropping out.

It’s a decent snapshot of what happens on a national scale.

It’s also a reason as an alumnus of one of those 238 schools included, I never fail to mention where I went to school in a bio. There’s no brag involved, it’s just my sense of responsibility to my community and to all people of color. It may be considered gauche as an adult to mention where you went to college as frequently as I do, especially in social conversation. But it’s not about bragging. In my ethnic community, which includes mostly immigrant Filipino families and other Asian-Americans, it does make a difference. When young Filipinos I talk to see how a low-income kid from the west coast earned a scholarship to an Ivy League school in the past, suddenly going to an elite school isn’t pie in the sky. It’s a real possibility. They don’t have to go to a school reachable by public transportation. They can go to a Harvard if they want. They are part of a legacy.

Most students, however, aren’t even aware of these schools, nor do they feel the need to attend these schools. The report seems to point a finger at the schools for not doing enough outreach and marketing to do away with the perception that the schools are too exclusive or out of reach. Schools aren’t doing enough.

But I fear school administrators will instead use the study to justify a new take on diversity — to de-emphasize race in favor of class.

And that would be a mistake. 

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator on race and diversity issues. Based in California, he writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund www.aaldef.org/blog and www.amok.com