Race vs SES-based Affirmative Action: Part 1

Should affirmative action at highly selective universities be based more on race or socioeconomic status?

While the post on higher education mostly aimed at encouraging low-income students to apply to highly selective colleges, these policies would not do much good if the students didn't get accepted. Therefore, a systematic way for the students who could benefit most from a high-quality education to be accepted is important for upward social mobility. Enter affirmative action.
Higher education institutions’ objective in utilizing affirmative action is to prioritize admitting students from diverse backgrounds so the students can share their perspectives and learn from others’ thinking (Shafer, 2018). Although many universities today do this by demonstrating preferences for admitting minority students, the evidence suggests they will create more diversity of perspectives, and more social mobility, with preferences for students of low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds (factoring in parental income, quality of schools, and neighborhood). For example, a black student from a poor inner-city neighborhood and a black student from a wealthy suburb have a wider difference in the obstacles they have encountered throughout their lives than a white and a black student from an upper-class neighborhood. Influential leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama have voiced concerns over affirmative action: King feared it would contradict his ideals of a colorblind society, while Obama recognized affirmative action tends to prefer wealthy minority students instead of those who could benefit most from an elite education — 86% of black students at selective colleges are upper or middle class (Kahlenberg, Potter, 2012). By utilizing a race-based affirmative action plan, colleges are inhibiting social mobility by admitting lots of wealthy students while violating their goals of creating a diverse range of perspectives, almost like they are closing the door to thousands of low-income students. To offer social mobility to the greatest number of people without sacrificing a diverse college environment, highly selective schools should institute class-based, or SES-based, affirmative action.


Regardless of what demographics the policy favors, affirmative action serves a valuable purpose. Education is an extremely beneficial investment for people of all backgrounds, shown by how in 2010-2013, there was about a $30,000 difference in annual income between people possessing a bachelor’s degree and those with only a high school degree, and approximately another $20,000 between individuals with an advanced degree and those with a bachelor’s degree (Greenstone et al, 2013). Highly selective universities (Ivy-Plus schools: the Ivy League institutions plus Stanford, Duke, MIT, and the University of Chicago) tend to have especially large economic impacts on low-income students. 13% of students who are from the bottom 20% of the income distribution and attend these institutions reach the top 1%. In contrast, at all colleges across the United States, only .6% of low-income students will reach the top 1% (Chetty et al, 2017). This indicates that the Ivy-Plus schools have by far the highest upper-tail mobility rates in the country for low-income students, although they don’t necessarily have the highest absolute mobility rates, shown in a previous post. Both low-income and minority access rates are low there, demonstrating that these demographics do not have the opportunity to fully reap the benefits of higher education.
Most Americans believe SES differences affect access to opportunity more than differences in race (Kahlenberg, Potter, 2012) which is increasingly true, as the achievement gap between students of high and low SES has widened in recent years. Demonstrating this immense gap, in 2015 the average reading SAT score for students from families who made less than $20,000 was 433, while students’ average score from whose families earned $200,000 or more was 570 (Jaschik, 2015). The driving force of this phenomenon has been wealthy parents raising spending on educational resources such as tutors and test preparation. Therefore, class-based affirmative action is a more precise measure of academic merit than race-based affirmative action. A 50th percentile SAT score, for instance, is more impressive for a student with restricted resources in their lives than a student attending a high-quality school and benefiting from expensive tutors.
Although more 18-20-year-olds today are enrolling in college than at any time in the past, elite colleges have not seen major demographic changes. In fact, from 2000 to 2011, at Ivy-Plus institutions the proportion of low-income students saw a very small increase despite improvements to the schools’ financial aid packages. This is partially due to the large numbers of students classified as black that are not actually African-American. 42% of the black students at Harvard in 1999 were Caribbean-born instead of American-born (Massey et al, 2007), and immigrant students tend to have more educated parents and wealthier families than African-American students. This essentially allows colleges to say they are admitting a diverse student body and simultaneously maintain the extreme wealth of their population. Among equally qualified students, the one who could benefit most from the education should receive it, but by immigrant black students taking the places at elite colleges from African-American students, the opposite is happening.

Additionally, the current inequality in social mobility can easily be observed. The difference in probability of reaching the top quintile of earnings outcomes between students from the top quintile of parental income versus the bottom quintile is 22%. However, a system adding 170 points to SAT scores of low-income students would reduce this disparity to 16% (Chetty, 2019). While this may not be the perfect class-based policy, it demonstrates how showing preferences for low-SES students can markedly decrease inequality of educational opportunity. Graduation rates and future earnings are hardly different at all for students of different backgrounds conditional on attending the same school, so once a student is accepted, they have a level socioeconomic playing field. For instance, at Columbia University about 60% of students from every parental income quintile will reach the top quintile in their own earnings (Chetty et al, 2017). 
If colleges’ true goal is to create diversity of perspectives on campus, then admitting students from different socioeconomic backgrounds would accomplish this goal more effectively than showing preferences for students based on race. Some researchers have proposed that SES-based affirmative action would require sacrificing racial diversity, saying that SES is not a proxy for race, and minority students will be at a disadvantage in SES-based affirmative action because they tend to score lower on standardized tests than whites and Asian-Americans of similar income levels (Xiang, Rubin, 2015). However, seven out of ten selective colleges examined in one report maintained or increased their representation of minority students by using race-neutral systems (Kahlenberg, Potter, 2012), demonstrating this statement to be false. Additionally, in this scenario, the students who would benefit most from a high-level education would receive one more often than they do currently, without race being a factor in admissions. Universities could easily and effectively open their metaphorical door under a SES-based affirmative action system.

              The goal of affirmative action for highly selective colleges is to foster diversity on their campuses, yet the institutions are just not currently doing that in the most effective way. Moreover, when minorities are admitted, they are almost always reasonably wealthy. Preferences for low-SES students will simultaneously bring in a wider variety of perspectives to universities than the current affirmative action and allow for a higher rate of students from low-income backgrounds to reach high earnings outcomes. Both the short-term environment of elite colleges and the long-term outcomes of their students would see noticeable upgrades as a result. Therefore, class-based affirmative action is in the best interest of elite institutions.

Works Cited

Chetty, Raj. "The Causal Effect of Colleges." 15 May 2019, Harvard University, Boston. Lecture.

Chetty, Raj, et al. Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility. July 2017, opportunityinsights.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/coll_mrc_summary.pdf. Accessed 14 Sept. 2019.

Fry, Richard, and Kim Parker. Early Benchmarks Show 'Post-Millennials' on Track to Be Most Diverse, Best-Educated Generation Yet. 15 Nov. 2018. Pew Research Center, www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/11/15/early-benchmarks-show-post-millennials-on-track-to-be-most-diverse-best-educated-generation-yet/. Accessed 14 Sept. 2019.

Greenstone, Michael, et al. Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education. 26 June 2013. Brookings, www.brookings.edu/research/thirteen-economic-facts-about-social-mobility-and-the-role-of-education/. Accessed 9 Sept. 2019.

Jaschik, Scott. "SAT Scores Drop." Inside Higher Ed, 3 Sept. 2015, www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/09/03/sat-scores-drop-and-racial-gaps-remain-large. Accessed 10 Oct. 2019.

Kahlenberg, Richard D., and Halley Potter. "A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities That Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences." The Century Foundation, 3 Oct. 2012, production-tcf.imgix.net/app/uploads/2012/10/03175956/tcf_abaa-8.pdf. Accessed 15 Sept. 2019.

Massey, Douglas S., et al. "Black Immigrants and Black Natives Attending Selective Colleges and Universities in the United States." American Journal of Education, vol. 113, no. 2, Feb. 2007, pp. 243-271. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/510167. Accessed 17 November 2019.

Shafer, Leah. "The Case for Affirmative Action." Harvard Graduate School of Education, 11 July 2018, www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/07/case-affirmative-action. Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

Xiang, Alice, and Donald B. Rubin. "Assessing the Potential Impact of a Nationwide Class-Based Affirmative Action System." Statistical Science, vol. 30, no. 3, Aug. 2015, pp. 297-327. JSTOR, www-jstor-org.ez.pausd.org/stable/24780657. Accessed 16 Sept. 2019.


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