Class-Based Affirmative Action

By Roach, Ronald | Black Issues in Higher Education, June 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

Class-Based Affirmative Action

Roach, Ronald, Black Issues in Higher Education

Battle over race-conscious approaches pushes idea to the surface

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 middleor upper-status families," according to Kahlenberg. …

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