Higher education after affirmative action


So what would higher education in America look like without affirmative action? This is the question many are asking after the Supreme Court decision in  Fisher v. University of Texas, Austin declaring that the use of race in college admissions must be justified by a compelling government interest.  While the decision did not invalidate or declare the use of race unconstitutional in admissions decisions, it made it very difficult to do that, perhaps effectively ending affirmative action.

Some see this decision as a blessing and victory for color-blind justice. In its place some advocate the use of class or economic disadvantage as a way to recruit and diversify. But given the growing economic polarization in the United States and trends in higher education, the use of class as admissions criteria in itself will fail to diversify and open up higher education to many new faces.

The mixing of race and education have always been controversial. Affirmative action was one tool to combat this discrimination. In 1978, the Supreme Court in Board of Regents of California v. Bakke upheld the use of race as one factor that could be considered among others when making college admissions decisions. It was a controversial 5-4 decision, with Justice Lewis Powell writing the controlling opinion defending affirmative action and the use of race in admissions as a means of promoting educational diversity. Twenty-five years later in Grutter v. Bolinger, the Supreme Court in another controversial 5-4 opinion again upheld the use of race and affirmative action in college admissions decisions. This time Justice O’Connor wrote the controlling opinion, yet this time opining that she hoped in another 25 years race no longer would need to be an admissions factor in a color-blind society.

But many in America still resent affirmative action. States such as California have already banned it, and there are calls to shift away from race and instead use economic disadvantage or class in place of it. What if the Supreme Court does ban the use of race in admissions, is class a good proxy or replacement? Not necessarily.

The real problem with shifting to class as an admissions criteria is that higher education has closed its doors to the poor, and America is more and more becoming an economically unequal society. The reality is that the poor cannot afford to go to school and higher education no longer seems to want or can afford them.

Consider America’s economic polarization. The first study is from the United States Census Bureau in 2010 describing poverty and income in America. In 2010 the richest five percent of the population accounted for 21 percent of the income, with the top 20 percent receiving more than 50 percent of the total income in the country. This compares to the bottom quintile accounting for about 3 percent of the total income.

A second study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in 2010, drawing upon Congressional Budget Office research, found that the income gap between the top one percent of the population and everyone else more than tripled since 1973. After-tax income for the top one percent increased by 281 percent between 1973 and 2007, while for the middle class or middle quintile it increased by 25 percent, for the bottom quintile it was merely 16 percent. Looking beyond income to wealth, the maldistribution has not been this bad since the 1920s. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2007 the top one-percent controlled almost 34 percent of the wealth in the country, with half of the population possessing less than 3 percent. The racial disparities for wealth mirror those of income. Since 2007, the wealth gap has increased as the value of American homes–the single largest source of wealth for most Americans– has eroded. Studies such as the Survey of Consumer Finances by the Federal Reserve Board have similarly concluded that the wealth gap has increased since the 1980s.

But Americans still dream and believe they can rise to the top. Yet social mobility in America has ground to a halt. A 2010 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study found that social mobility in the United States ranked far below that of many other developed countries. Nearly half of the economic advantage parents have in the United States is transmitted to their children; a number nearly two-and-one-half times that of Australia and Canada. The biggest cause of social immobility according to the report is declining educational opportunities for many students. Other studies, including those in 2005 and 2010 in the Economist, similarly point to the declining social mobility in the United States that makes it difficult for individuals to rise from one social economic status to a better one. In fact, there is better than a 95 percent chance that children will not improve their social economic status in comparison to their parents. In sum, the rich are getter richer and the poor cannot change their lot.

Now consider higher education. The New York Times and other media services have talked about the declining applications from blue-collar students to elite universities and higher education in general. Rising tuition rates are pricing the poor out of school. But other studies point to universities which are culturally intolerant to the poor and working class. Fewer and fewer professors are first generation college students, and many schools rely upon legacy admissions. At Harvard, studies recount how legacies–children of students who previously attended Harvard–appear to have a greater chance of securing admission than those whose parents did not attend the school. For supposedly the most selective school in the country, the legacy applicant pool is not as competitive. Additionally, applicants who attend a select number of preparatory schools also seem to benefit in terms of admissions. Income and family economic advantages make a difference in terms of admissions and success in school.

The point here is that finding  race in admissions as unconstitutional and replacing it with class will do little either to diversify higher education or open up opportunities for the disadvantaged. Affirmative action for the poor will do little to ensure they are admitted, that they can afford to go, or that they can succeed and compete. Merely changing the law this way will do little to help the disadvantaged, regardless of race.