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Broadening ‘Diversity’ at Universities

Part III of a three-part series: The affirmative action of tomorrow might focus more on class and other proxies for hardship and less on race.
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See Part One of our three-part series on affirmative action.

In a May 2007 interview, ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked Barack Obama whether his daughters should enjoy the benefits of affirmative action. His answer, essentially, was no.

"My daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as pretty advantaged," he said. While noting "there are a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling, white kids who have been brought up in poverty and shown they have what it takes to succeed" deserve to have their difficult backgrounds taken into account when college admissions decisions are made.

Obama, who has since become the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was echoing a school of thought that is gradually gaining influence: As more and more African Americans and other minorities join the middle class, perhaps the focus of our universities' affirmative action plans should start to shift from one proxy for hardship, race, to another, class.

A new group of scholars is asking: If diversity is the goal of affirmative action, as Justice Lewis Powell stated in the landmark Bakke decision 30 years ago, why should that be limited to skin color? In terms of life experience and cultural background, who brings more diversity to an Ivy League classroom: The son of a black professor or the daughter of a white truck driver?

"I think there has been a marked change in the past decade, and it has accelerated in the last three or four years," said Richard Sander, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who has challenged many widely held assumptions concerning affirmative action. "Rick Kahlenberg started it with his 1996 book The Remedy," which argues many factors should be considered in determining who is disadvantaged, including a prospective student's family structure, neighborhood and net worth.

Few in academia see this approach as a substitute for dealing with racial inequality. As John Yun, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara points out, more poor people in America are non-Hispanic whites than any other race. He argues that if affirmative action plans were based on class alone, few people of color would make the cut.
But there is a growing acceptance of the idea that the issue of class needs to be addressed. No one doubts that an elite group of upper-class students — the children of wealthy alumni who are regularly solicited for donations — have a significant advantage in the admissions process. Should their presence be balanced with students from less-fortunate families?

"I think the elite institutions of America need to do a far better job on socioeconomic diversity than they have been doing," said Goodwin Liu, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley who is an expert on, and proponent of, affirmative action. "What (some scholars) are arguing for is a more explicit or automatic bonus for class-based consideration. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

"A lot of good programs that are trying to diversify the student body look at both race and class," said law professor Angelo Ancheta of Santa Clara University. "They understand the intersection of the two. But a lot of schools don't really try to diversify along class lines — especially the elite private universities. Some are eliminating tuition for some low-income families, but there's not the level of economic-class diversity that I'd like to see."

Indeed, Liu sees the nation's top private and public universities moving in different directions in this regard, particularly as race-based affirmative action programs are outlawed in various states (see the first installment in this series).

"We have at UC Berkeley more Pell Grant recipients (which go to students from low-income families) than all of the Ivy League schools combined," he said. "UC Berkeley is still doing an incredibly good job being a ladder of upward mobility and opportunity. The flip side of that is the private universities. They have started to expand their financial aid policies, which is good. But they generally have not made a big priority of enrolling low-income kids.

"The odd thing is the Ivy League schools are now more racially diverse, on some metrics, than UC Berkeley — at least with respect to enrolling African-American students. They are continuing to use affirmative action, while UC Berkeley is not. So now we're heading toward a future in which racial diversity will be consistently achieved by private universities, while the public universities are comparatively less representative of the people they are supposed to serve. Meanwhile, the public schools continue to have tremendous socioeconomic diversity, and the privates have comparatively less."

Liu contends the socioeconomic diversity at UC Berkeley has taken place "in spite of Proposition 209," a 1996 California constitutional amendment that outlawed race-based affirmative action. Sander, the law professor at UCLA, argues the exact opposite: That it was only once racial preferences were outlawed that schools were forced to seriously consider socioeconomic status.

"I've been trying for a year to get data that would let me look at this (question) carefully," he said. "I hope to get it this summer. But even the aggregate data the university has made available makes it clear there was a sharp shift after (Proposition 209) passed in terms of how your socioeconomic background affected your chances of admission."

Sander considers racial diversity an important goal as well, but he complains that at most law schools — the segment of the educational world he has studied most extensively — "the relative weight between race and socioeconomic status has been 50 to 1. People will say they're both important, but (our top schools) have acted as if only one of them is important.

"If you do a cross-section of law school admissions, you find that at a given test-score level, low-socioeconomic-status students are less likely to be admitted than high-socioeconomic-status students. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it's because admission officers like to see things like 'I know six languages' or 'I was an intern for Barbara Boxer.' If you're working class, you don't spend your summers on Capitol Hill; you spend your summers earning money to pay for next year's expenses."

Sander would like elite universities to move to "a 50-50 focus on race and socioeconomic factors." Whether that happens will be largely up to judges, admissions officers and voters considering ballot initiatives. But he noted that Obama, if elected president in November, will be in a unique position to lead the nation in that direction. "On the affirmative action issue," Sander said, "Obama could be sort of like Nixon going to China."

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