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Class Action: A Challenge to the Idea that Income Can Integrate America’s Campuses

Monday’s less-than-dramatic Supreme Court decision on a potentially decisive affirmative action case will likely stir talk of using class considerations to achieve diversity in the country’s colleges. Everyone thinks it sounds good. But some scholars say America’s campuses will never be meaningfully racially diverse under such programs.

TV crews wait outside the Supreme Court in Washington in advance of the Court's less-than-dramatic decision on a potentially decisive affirmative action case on June 24, 2013. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Update April 23, 2014: The Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s voter-approved ban on affirmative action for women and racial minorities at public universities. While the Court did not prohibit affirmative action altogether, it’s likely that other states may follow Michigan’s lead in eliminating the consideration of race in higher education and other areas.

Affirmative action occupies a telling place in a nation painfully aware of its racial inequities yet painfully divided over how to solve them.

Great numbers of Americans support the overarching goals of assuring equal access to educational opportunity and maintaining racial diversity in the country's institutions of higher learning. At the same time, polls show Americans are deeply conflicted – often along racial lines – about policies that achieve those goals by allowing colleges to use race as a factor in their admissions decisions.

The latest chapter in this national struggle was supposed to come with the U.S. Supreme Court's consideration of an affirmative action case involving a white student and the University of Texas. But the ruling – announced Monday amid much anticipation – merely sent the case back to the lower courts for reconsideration.

Afiirmative action, in its threadbare form, lives for now. But there was enough in Monday's opinion to suspect it will be diminished further in time.

All of which makes it an opportune moment to think again about what some people think could be a fairer and more palatable way of ensuring diversity on America's campuses – affirmative action based on class. The idea seems simple enough: This approach would give poor students of any race a helping hand into college, and any policy that gives an admissions boost to lower-income students would naturally benefit significant numbers of black and Latino students.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the progressive think-tank The Century Foundation, is one of the principal proponents of what has come to be called "the economic integration movement."

"My primary interest is in ensuring that we have a fair process that looks at the biggest disadvantages that people face today, which I see as class-based," Kahlenberg said in a recent interview. "That will end up helping low-income and working-class students of all races."

Kahlenberg knows that many dispute this belief. But he says skepticism directed at the class-based solution has to be weighed against its dim alternative: If race-based affirmative action disappears with no program to replace it, African Americans and Latinos on college campuses will disappear too. Studies show that African-American and Latino enrollment at the nation's top 200 colleges would plummet by two-thirds if colleges stopped considering race when deciding whom to accept.

Yet ignoring race does not wipe its effects away. A formula that uses class while disregarding race may be politically popular, but many scholars say race remains so powerful a factor that a class-based system would seriously reduce black and Latino representation at American colleges from their current levels.

At the heart of their argument: Poor white Americans are still privileged when compared to poor African Americans and Latinos. Use class as the basis for admissions preference, studies show, and the nation's colleges will be flush with poor white students. "There are disadvantages that accrue to African Americans and Latinos that are not explained by class," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "You simply cannot get race by using class."

(Live, Tuesday 3 pm ET: Join Nikole Hannah-Jones on Reddit to Discuss The Abigail Fisher Case)

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The idea of abandoning race for an admissions system targeting those clinging to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder holds powerful sway for many who believe that in modern America race is no longer much of an obstacle to success.

There is no doubt that the greatest imbalance in American colleges is not white versus black or male versus female. It is the wealthy versus everybody else.

Kahlenberg asserts that affluent students – those whose families earn at least $123,000 a year – outnumber poor students by 25-1 on the campuses of the nation's most select schools. He said that while white Americans are twice as likely to earn a college degree as black Americans, the affluent are seven times as likely to earn one as the poor.

According to the most recent data available, about three-quarters of students at the nation's top 146 universities come from families in the upper quarter of the nation's economic scale. Just 3 percent come from the bottom quarter. A study released this year by The Brookings Institution documented how selective colleges enroll nearly all of the high-achieving high school seniors from families in the highest income quartile, but just one-third of the top low-income students.

Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor who filed an amicus brief in the Fisher case supporting race-based affirmative action, said all the focus on the unfairness of race preferences ignores the bigger problem.

"Students who are getting into institutions of higher education tend to be upper middle-class students and they are the ones who are getting a preference," Guinier said. "Their preference comes from their parents' ability to spend a lot of money preparing them for SAT's and other college entrance exams and even hiring coaches to help them draft their personal statements."

And it seems that Americans, when asked, think that inequity should be fixed. While divided about racial preferences, polls show that about 85 percent of Americans approve of policies that offer special advantages or treatment for the economically disadvantaged.

So what's the problem? Poverty does not produce an equal opportunity burden across racial lines.

Being poor simply does not sequester white and Asian Americans from opportunity in the same way as African Americans and Latinos.

The typical low-income white American lives in a neighborhood where just one in 10 of their neighbors is poor, according to U.S. Census data. Their children typically attend middle-class schools where they benefit from the same qualified teachers and rigorous college prep curricula as their wealthier classmates.

The experience of poor African Americans and Latinos is starkly different. The typical poor black family lives in a heavily segregated neighborhood with twice the poverty rate of their white counterparts. Their children largely attend racially isolated, high-poverty schools, which are often burdened further by substandard teachers and a dearth of college prep classes.

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.

Rose said colleges would have to recruit seven to eight poor white students to get one black or Latino student. Unless colleges set aside close to half of their seats for class preferences, Rose said, black and Latino enrollment would decline severely. And, he said, class preferences that look only at the poor would also disadvantage middle-class black students trapped in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods and struggling schools.

"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."

(Related: What Abigail Fisher’s Affirmative Action Case Is Really About)

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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."

If we are going to make more educational opportunities for minorities, or majorities, we need to do the same in the college sports programs with the same number of free athletic scholarships to whites! And the same needs to apply to the National Sports Leagues. Let’s make it even everywhere. Would more money be available if we stopped full scholarships and limited them to 50% of the cost of education. There could be twice as many scholarships for more students!  Does anyone wonder about a system that takes the brightest and/or the best Athletes, who are the most likely to have the highest income of all the students after college, and have others give them a free education?  What a system…the person most likely to have the highest income after college, is the one most likely to have the least or lowest student loans!

There’s some confusion in this article.  “Class” is not the same thing as “socio-economic status”, which some have proposed, and a few colleges are using, along with other, non-racial criteria, for admissions.  There are a number of good reasons for using socio-economic status (NOT “class”) in affirmative action programs (nobody in the US knows what “class” is).  These include the fact that it is much more difficult to challenge such use legally; that it accomplishes about 60-70% for African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans of what would be accomplished by using race and national origin; that it benefits some people who need it, such as poor white single mothers of disabled children (the plaintiff in the famous previous U. of Texas Law School affirmative action Supreme Court decision); and that it eliminates some current race-based affirmative action recipients, such as the child of an African-American doctor and engineer, or the child of a diplomat from Africa, who don’t need affirmative action.

Michael Plasmeier

June 24, 2013, 4:02 p.m.

I want to see the idea of “considering students in the context of the resources available to them” explored more.  Essentially, how can you control for the resources a student has available to them.  As the article points out, different people have vastly different resources available to them.  How can colleges find the people that stand out from the others around them? I think those people, then given the proper resources at good colleges, will continue to excel.

I am not 100% certain how exactly one implements this.  One example: what if instead of taking the top 10% of the applicant pool, you take the top 10% of people from a given school, or the top 10% of people from that ethnicity in the applicant pool.  I need to think about this more.

Keep Calm and Base It On Economic Need.

“The latest chapter in this national struggle was supposed to come with…” the Supreme Court ruling.

How’d that supposition work out for you? Wouldn’t it be easier to report who did what and leave the supposition to the pundits? Wait… ProPublica is ProPunditry.

Edward Raskiewicz

June 25, 2013, 1:18 a.m.

As a victim of the"Affirmative Action” discrimination and the discrimination of being a poor white candidate who nevertheless graduated with honors from a top Medical School, I would like to know the graduation rate from the top universities of those candidates who benefited from the “Affirmative Action” whatever. Then I will decide about race vs class selection for who will benefit from a top notch university. Lets look at results first before making a decision.

Time affirmative action dies.

My community in eastern Tennessee is 99+% Anglo white, but, except for skin color, students share all the disadvantages of students in the Mississippi delta.  The suppositions in the article above, while valid for many white students, are not valid here.  We are actually involved in a diversity study solely to prevent the researchers from making the same incorrect assumptions made by the author of this article.  It would be beneficial if researchers got out of the cities and suburbs and sampled the real America.

If the argument is that using class is insufficient because students in racially segregated, failing schools are at a severe disadvantage then one has to wonder if those same students—admitted under affirmative action—are academically prepared to succeed in college. Dropout rates, which are higher for minorities, would seem to lend credence to that possibility. Perhaps more emphasis should be placed improving failing schools and early identification of college-track students to make sure they are academically prepared. They would then be in a position to compete in a class-based admissions system and hopefully go on to excel in college.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

June 25, 2013, 12:16 p.m.

Hi Snyder. Thank you for your comment. I want you to know that I do not in any way discount the poverty of white students, particularly rural white students. My reporting, however, was on the typical student. And the typical white poor white student nationally lives in a very different type of neighborhood and attends a very different type of school than the typical poor black and Latino student—and even the typical middle-class black and Latino student.

Also, I think it is important to note that not one person in my article opposed class-based affirmative action. They all believe colleges have a duty to help low-income students of all races. However, some believe that race must also be taken into account because of the specific effect it has on access to quality education.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

June 25, 2013, 12:20 p.m.

Hi Preston. There is concern that students coming from failing schools are under-prepared for selective colleges. But many would argue that students should not be punished and have opportunities clipped because they had to attend failing schools. Studies have shown that while these students may struggle at the beginning, if given proper support, they graduate at higher rates than their counterparts as less selective schools.

Also, I think it is important to note that those challenging affirmative action are almost universally silent about the inequitable and racialized K-12 system that many believe renders affirmative action necessary. Studies also show that poor black and Latino students who attend integrated, low-poverty schools are more likely to graduate, are better prepared for college and do better once they go to college.

Thank you for your comment!

Preston, there’s an alternative view that those large-scale statistics are exactly the reason for Affirmative Action.  This country (among many others) spent about three hundred years actively making it more difficult for minorities and women to get anywhere.  Since the “grand enlightenment” if the 1960s, it hasn’t been as active.

By analogy, imagine some weirdo…let’s use Donald Trump as sufficiently clownish and rich.  Imagine if he bought up all the oil companies in the world and decided that the only way you can gas up your car is to pull up to Trump Station in midtown Manhattan.

People who live near New York have it easy, the rest of you…well, c’mon, maybe if you just applied yourselves a little harder to getting gas, you wouldn’t keep running out.  New Yorkers don’t have a problem with the situation, and that’s a site of a lot of influence, so it actually makes sense that all the fuel is sold there.

Got that blatantly absurd scenario?  OK, now, let’s say someone tries to open up a rival gas station in Colorado.  What’s the Trump response?

“Oh, that’s so unfair to New Yorkers.  Fuel is being taken out of their hands, where it’s needed, and being wasted on a chunk of the country nobody cares about.  If they were motivated, they all would have moved to New York.  Instead, most of them run out of gas before they even get to the East Coast.”

OK, that idea got trashed.  You wouldn’t want to upend civilization for the benefit of a minority.  What about just making it easier for people away from New York to get gas?  Maybe use Amtrak to help someone get his car across the country without wasting more gas than gets in the tank, or vouchers to ship it west.  Response?

“Those Westies can’t even hack basic needs without help from the government.  It’s an atrocity to focus on them, especially when the New Yorkers get nothing to compensate!  Look, there are even some people who live right up the road from the fueling station who can’t get gas because it’s so crowded.  What’s in it for them?”

While I can’t say that Affirmative Action is perfect or (frankly) even working, I do think it’s on the right track.  Are poor white people also having trouble?  Yes.  I was one for most of my life, so I agree.  But they’re for reasons other than systematic discrimination for almost four hundred years, so they’re not going to be fixed by the same means.

Economic inequality needs to be handled, too, especially as the richest and poorest move further apart.  But it’s not going to be fixed by scratching out “black” and scribbling in “poor” in policy documents, if for no other reason than many rich people hide away their money in trusts and shell corporations that they’re poorer on paper than most homeless people, and they’ll happily take advantage of programs for those in need.

Hi Snyder, I’d be curious to know more about the diversity study your community is involved in.  Feel free to let me know offline.  .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

I share the concern about the accuracy of this statement:  “the typical white poor white student nationally lives in a very different type of neighborhood and attends a very different type of school than the typical poor black and Latino student.”  When I worked for the Office for Civil Rights of the US Department of Education, we said that student achievement varied directly with parent income and parent educational attainment.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

June 25, 2013, 3:16 p.m.

Hi Marc. The statement above can easily be verified with data from the U.S. Census and National Center for Education Statistics. There certainly is a correlation between student achievement and parent income and educational attainment, but that does not explain the racial gap when parental income and educational attainment are controlled for. Also, there are many other correlations to student achievement, such as teacher quality, percent poverty at a school, race, etc. The study by Carnevale and Rose linked to the article details how the authors took all of these factors into account and still could not account for the race gap.

When did you work for the Office of Civil Rights?

Marc Brenman

June 25, 2013, 4 p.m.

Hi Nikole, I worked for the Office for Civil Rights from 1973 to 1995.  You may be interested in my most recent book, “Planning as if People Matter: Governing for Social Equity,” with Tom Sanchez, from Island Press, 2012.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

June 25, 2013, 4:52 p.m.

I’ll definitely check it out. I’d love to talk to you about a project I am working on. Mind if I contact you offline?

Hi Nikole, happy to talk.  Feel free to contact me at my e-mail above.

Race based Affirmative Action has to end.  It has been tried and only acheived a difference in the first 2 years of college due to the high drop out rate of minorities.  It is far better to base help on parent income both from an outcome based measurement (more graduates per dollar) and from an Equality based assessment (being fair to everyone). 

If we want to help minorities we have to put that help at ground level rather than aspirational levels (a college education will solve your problems).  Why are minorities under acheivers?  What factors are different?  Taking your article as a basis, it seems that we need to break up those clusters of abject poor minorities and spread them out as you say poor white and Orientals live and thrive.  That is not a matter of college education, it is a matter of personal education as to the advantages of integration into multiracial and multi cultural communities.  If you want full integration then help them to integrate more than they are now.  Don’t waste time and money in getting them into college where they mostly drop out instead of graduating.  That is programing another failure for them and for the country. 

The secret to getting a job is partly education, and partly speaking, reading and writing English, dressing appropriately, and exhibiting appropriate behavior for the workplace.  Perhaps training in those areas would be more productive for everyone.  Showing up on time an dconsistantly would also help.

With college education increasingly being priced out of reach for ALL poor people, why not get the most bang for the buck by helping those who have shown (statistically) to be more likely to graduate.  Climbing out of a hole takes effort, unless you are given an elevator.  Once people have climbed out of their hole through their own drive and focus they are less likely to fall into another.

Georgetown , where Carnevale and Rose works can hardly be expected to get rid of the son of Donald Trump in favor of poor and smarter applicants who do not have the money as Mr. Trump does. Indeed, the son of the Donald is an alumnus of Georgetown. Neither would Notre Dame. Harvard or Yale could be expected to the same thing. So why isn’t Cass Sunstein and Lani Guinier and thier ilk call on the Feds not to give money to the Ivy schools , every penny of it, for practicing legacy preferences. The immense hypocrisy of it.


We know that poor Asians have higher mean SAT scores on the average than poor and middle class whites, and poor Asians have higher mean SAT scores than poor, middle class and wealthy blacks on the average. So if we follow the perverse logic being presented by Ms Jones , should middle class whites be given preferences in college admissions over poor Asians ? Should middle class and wealthy blacks be given preferences in college admissions over poor Asians.  So where does this preference business stop ? Martians. So should middle class Asians be given preferences in admissions over poor Martians ? Unbelievable.