Dec 9, 2013
Would Class-Based Admissions Be Better?
Posted on Jun 25, 2013
By Nikole Hannah-Jones, ProPublica
Even middle-class African Americans and Latinos – whom many Americans do not believe deserve affirmative action – often cannot gain entry to better neighborhoods and top-notch schools. Affluent African Americans and Latinos live in poorer neighborhoods on average than working-class white Americans, a Brown University analysis of 2010 U.S. Census data showed. As a result, most black children – regardless of their family’s income – attend schools where two-thirds of their classmates are poor and resources and college prep courses are limited.
That poor white and Asian students are not generally consigned to deeply poor neighborhoods and their failing schools, experts say, helps explain why white and Asian students account for nearly all (84 percent) of the nation’s low-income students who are considered high achievers – defined as students with an A-minus average who score in the top 10 percent on the SAT or the ACT. And under a strictly class-based system, these experts argue, these high-achieving low-income students would snap up the open spaces at top colleges.
For black and Latino students, then, a set of affirmative action programs that treat class preferentially could be disastrous. Some studies have shown that a college admissions system that favors the poor would indeed boost enrollment of working-class students – making them as much as 40 percent of the student body – but it would sink black and Latino enrollment. Representation of blacks and Latinos in college could fall from its current 16 percent into the single digits.
Carnevale and his Georgetown colleague, Stephen Rose, have studied the degree to which affirmative action programs targeting class can produce a more economically diverse student body while maintaining current levels of black and Latino enrollment.
“The common view is that it’s really not race, it’s class – you get that from left, right, black, white,” Carnevale said. “It is true that higher education has all but ignored class. But that doesn’t change the fact that African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately excluded from selective colleges and college in general. It isn’t either/or.”
Both Kahlenberg, the champion of economic integration, and Carnevale and Rose, the skeptics, agree that an effective way forward would be to use both class and race in the admissions calculus.
Kahlenberg, for his part, would like to target race without being explicit about it. He is against a narrow, income-based admissions program that only looks at how much a student’s parents earn in their jobs because it would be “unfair to African Americans and Latinos students who on average face substantial obstacles that whites of similar income do not face.” He proposes an elaborate array of tools admissions officers could use. Universities should determine the wealth, net worth, education and occupations of a student’s parents, he said, and consider as well whether applicants live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and come from single-parent homes.
“Under that program, you will take up lots of African Americans and Latino students,” he said. “But that is different than a program that says, ‘Check a racial box.’”
Rose and Carnevale say that Kahlenberg’s approach might appeal to Americans ready to embrace a post-racial American ideal, but it still won’t work. They spent years working as researchers at the standardized testing giant, Educational Testing Service, trying to find the “holy grail” – the class dynamics that could negate the role of race in educational opportunity. They looked at the factors Kahlenberg suggested and then some.
“We were trying to prove that you get race by getting the right socioeconomic factor,” Carnevale said. “We can never do it.”
Carnevale said the only way colleges can maintain black and Latino enrollment in a nation where soon half of all school children will be of color is to continue the unpopular but successful practice of explicitly taking race into account.
“We want to figure out ways to get race without using race – if it weren’t so tragic it would be funny,” said Carnevale. “The bottom line is race and class are not the same thing. There are a lot of ways to be unequal but race is still the worst – it is still the one you don’t want to be.”
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