Basing affirmative action on income changes payoff


Like many Americans, Kenyatta Rowel is not entirely comfortable with racial preferences in college admissions. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore sophomore from Annapolis says he'd prefer affirmative action in higher education to be based on socioeconomic disadvantage rather than race.

"It should be promoted not just for minorities but for anyone who's caught the back hand of society," says Rowel, 22, an English major at the historically black college.

With the U.S. Supreme Court weighing the legality of racial preferences at the University of Michigan - a case that could overhaul college admissions in Maryland and the rest of the country - majorities of Americans tell pollsters they'd like to see race-based affirmative action replaced with preferences designed for the poor of all colors. As many see it, that's what affirmative action is supposed to be: a boost to those most in need.

It's a sensible suggestion - except that socioeconomic affirmative action in college admissions may not work the way one expects it to.

Giving an admissions edge to poor college applicants is appealing because it would seem to accomplish the double goal of increasing racial diversity - because many African-Americans and Latinos are clustered low on the economic ladder - while also helping poor white students who are left behind in race-based affirmative action.

But a series of studies have arrived at what many consider a surprising conclusion: Gearing admissions preferences to poor students would reduce the numbers of blacks and Latinos at the country's top schools.

The reason? As opponents of race-based preferences like to point out, nearly all minorities at the best colleges are from the middle and upper-middle classes. Derek Bok and William G. Bowen's The Shape of the River, the definitive defense of affirmative action in college admissions, reports that 86 percent of black students at the top 28 universities are from the middle or upper-middle class.

Focusing preferences on poor students rather than race would, therefore, leave most of the African-Americans now attending top colleges without the admissions edge they now have.

At the same time, studies have found, the shift in preference would not produce a compensatory surge in poor blacks and Latinos at top schools.

While there are higher proportions of these minorities in lower socioeconomic levels than in the overall population, they are outnumbered by poor whites. Class-based preferences would give a boost to low-income blacks and Latinos, but would result in even larger numbers of poor whites, who are greatly underrepresented at top colleges, being admitted.

A recent report by the Century Foundation found that affirmative action based only on income level, which the report generally favored, would result in an admissions pool at the top 146 colleges made up of 4 percent black students and 6 percent Hispanics. Enrollment at those schools now averages 6 percent for each group.

In addition, studies have found, admissions policies geared toward poor students would not include as many low-income blacks and Latinos as one may expect because their grades and test scores are, on average, much lower than those of poor whites and Asians. Competing against working-class blacks and Latinos under a color-blind policy, low-income whites and Asians would be more likely to be admitted.

This happened in the University of California system, which ended race-based preferences eight years ago while still giving an edge to students who have "suffered disadvantage." Immediately, the numbers of Asians at top campuses surged; the numbers of blacks and Latinos plunged. A study by Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel found that SAT scores for Californians with family incomes of less than $20,000 were about 200 points higher among whites and Asians than blacks and Latinos.

In fact, defenders of race-based preferences say, income-based preferences would result in less racial diversity at top colleges simply because few poor blacks and Latinos would apply.

"Most [poor blacks and Latinos] are at high schools where you can't get ready for college," said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard. In a shift to class-based preferences "you'd lose the minority students best prepared to function on these campuses."

Those in favor of replacing race-based preferences with income-based ones dismiss the argument that this would produce less racial diversity. It stands to reason, they say, that a policy giving an edge to an income class would produce fewer minorities than a policy geared explicitly to blacks and Hispanics.

The fact is, they say, income-based affirmative action is preferable even if it leads to fewer blacks and Latinos attending top colleges. That affirmative action's defenders argue that income-based preferences would reduce the numbers of middle- and upper-middle-class black students at top schools shows, its foes say, how little the policy helps those most in need.

"If you're trying to counter disadvantages, shouldn't we try to counter those disadvantages for all people, no matter what color they are?" said Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank.

Proponents of an income-based approach say it would be less divisive than race-based preferences because most Americans view it as fairer. And the income diversity it would result in, they say, would be as valuable to campuses as racial diversity. According to the Century Foundation, only 10 percent of students at the top 146 colleges are from the lower half of the socioeconomic scale; income-based preferences would raise that to 38 percent.

"You're going to have a huge influx of poor whites, but I don't view that as a problem," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the foundation. "I view it as a good thing to have poor students of all backgrounds."

Defenders of race-based preferences say the proponents of an income-based approach miss the point. Affirmative action in higher education was never meant only as a social uplift mechanism, they say, but also as a way to counter discrimination.

Yes, the beneficiaries of race-based preferences in admissions tend to be middle-class, defenders say, but middle-class blacks still face obstacles unknown to their white counterparts.

"Every time we come close to talking about racism we want to shift" the discussion, said john a. powell, director of the Kirwan Institute on Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, who writes his name in lower case. "I certainly don't oppose helping poor whites or poor Asians, but that doesn't address racism."

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