The Breakfast Table

Supreme Court affirmative action case: Colleges are shockingly bad at recruiting poor kids.

Selective colleges are shockingly bad at recruiting poor kids of all races.

Colorado State University in Fort Collins host the Ram Welcome for their incoming freshman and transfer students on the intramural fields on campus.
Will ending affirmative action advance a meritocratic ideal?

Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/Getty Images

I agree with you, Eric. In reality, diversity is one of many reasons why universities care about admitting sizeable numbers of African-American and Hispanic students. I also think Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is right that the court should never have told schools they have to be blind to the discrimination of the past—to the legacy of racism. That’s a wrong turn in the court’s approach to affirmative action. It’s also where I part company with Justice Clarence Thomas, who insisted yesterday, as he has before, that letting public universities give minorities a boost in admissions is the same as letting them bar black students from attending at all before the 1950s. Thomas’ understanding of what equal protection under the law means is just so ahistorical.

I’m suspicious, though, of the idea that ending affirmative action will advance a meritocratic ideal. Meritocracy defined how? By heavily weighting SAT scores, as most colleges and universities now do? By giving the biggest admission boost to legacy kids and athletes, also common, and never the subject of a Supreme Court challenge? I don’t think there’s anyway to get to pure meritocracy. But we could have admissions that are much more fair than what we’ve got now. By which I mean admissions that take racism into account, but give more weight to the disadvantage of being poor.

In the last couple of months, I’ve done a lot of reading and reporting about how colleges actually do admissions. I started with the premise that racial diversity in college and graduate school is a good thing—and so is income-based diversity. Yet schools are offering some of the first kind and precious little of the second kind. Richard Kahlenberg has the evidence. And you can see the increasing discomfort this is causing, among white liberals as well as conservatives like the ones on the Supreme Court, in recent articles by Bill Keller and David Leonhardt of the New York Times. (Actually Leonhardt has a long track record on affirmative action.)

But there is a strong response to this critique: namely that American society is still racist! Here is NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill making that case strongly, as does Lee C. Bollinger, current president of Columbia University and former president of the University of Michigan, where he was a named defendant in the Supreme Court’s 2003 case. We’re not done with race-based affirmative action because we shouldn’t be done, they are saying. Ten years ago, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously gave these race-conscious admissions policies 25 more years. She was right, and the Supreme Court was right to let the clock continue to run with its nondecision decision today.

Now forget the law for a second. Let’s talk about how college admissions work on the ground. At many selective schools, what happens is not meritocratic; it’s also not pretty. Kids get a leg up based on who their parents are or how much money they have—celebrity status and gobs of wealth are tickets. And kids who are black or Hispanic and also affluent, also get a boost. Their parents, like white upper-middle-class parents, can afford to give their kids SAT tutors and enriching summers abroad. This is the kind of affirmative action admissions that infuriated the conservative justices at oral argument. “What if they’re in the top 1 percent,” Justice Samuel Alito said of wealthy black and Hispanic kids who could potentially benefit from UT Austin’s affirmative action plan. “Do they deserve a leg up over a white applicant who is absolutely average?” (Income wise, he means.)

Meanwhile, high performing, low-income students, both white and minority, are still neither applying to selective colleges nor attending in the numbers they should. This has been clear for years, thanks to the work of people like former Princeton University President William G. Bowen, but this spring new research by economist Caroline Hoxby and public-policy professor Christopher Avery spotlighted the problem. Hoxby and Avery found that “only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges,” as Leonhardt has written. Meanwhile, “among top students in the highest income quartile, that figure was 78 percent.” It turns out that if you are a poor kid from New York City or another big urban area, you’re probably in the pipeline. But if live in a small city or town, or out in the country, you’re probably not. And the difference is information and your sense of the possible—what you know about, what you learn from the experiences of people around you. Hoxby followed up with an experiment in which she showed that just sending high school seniors 75 pages of information about selective schools could boost their admission rates from about 30 percent to 54 percent.

Hoxy and Avery’s work, like the research that went before, gives the lie to the claim many colleges have traditionally made: They are doing the best they can to admit poor students, and there just aren’t enough of them to go around. This is simply not true. Most schools are not doing what they should to making sure these students find out about them, much less them get in, or, even more important, give them the support they need to succeed once they’re on campus. Why not? Because it’s thankless and expensive. Many of us, of all races and ethnicities, are primed to look for and value a rainbow of color in a school brochure. But how do we see the poor kids? How many parents visit a campus and ask how many low-incomes students are enrolled?

If they did ask, they’d see disappointing numbers at a lot of schools. The U.S. News and World Report rankings of colleges—which remain frustratingly, ridiculously important—give zero points for economic diversity. Meanwhile, it costs money, in the form of financial aid and also in the form of fewer slots going to students who can pay the full sticker price. Plenty of schools have given lip service to boosting their low-income student numbers for the past decade. But most haven’t really succeeded. It’s especially challenging for schools that lack huge endowments. Vassar President Catharine Hill—who has written about this problem and whose school does better by poor kids than most—told me she was part of a group of university officials who crunched the numbers a few years ago. “In response to all the attention to economic diversity in the mid-2000s, we looked at schools in 2008 compared to 2001,” she said. “We found that very wealthy schools pushed up their share” of low-income students “but other schools didn’t. They felt they couldn’t afford more.” When I called around to admissions offices around the country, the officials I talked to confirmed this. One reason race-based affirmative action has lasted is that it’s a relatively cheap kind of diversity, dollar for dollar.

Hill says she has asked U.S. News to include socioeconomic diversity in its rankings formula, but that’s never gone anywhere. “Think about the incentives,” she said. “Every dollar you use for financial aid could have been used otherwise to improve your ranking. Spending on every other thing ups your score.” The U.S. News rankings reflect, in some sense, how many of us view the relative quality or value of a college. Until we demand more socioeconomic diversity from colleges and universities—and reward them for it—they’re not going to deliver it. There will be a few exceptions, but that will remain the rule.

In fact, a new report by Stephen Burd at the New America Foundation shows that schools are simultaneously charging more and diverting more scholarship money from need-based to merit-based aid. “It’s about getting more full-pay students, or close to that, to ease the financial burden,” he said. He thinks the federal government should start using the Pell Grant program to change the incentives. “I’d give a Pell bonus to schools with a high percentage of students who receive Pell Grants”—low-income students—“with the explicit expectation that they’d bring down the net price for college, and also meet a high standard for graduation rates.”*

Monday’s Supreme Court decision probably won’t change that. Private universities, and most public ones, too, will keep doing what they’re doing. But a parallel universe is taking shape in the 10 states that have banned affirmative action. And in these states, the gist is that affirmative action is now about class rather than race, yet for the most part, sizeable numbers of black and Hispanic students are still being admitted. So are poor white kids. It’s not a simple or clear picture. At a few of the top schools affected—Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Michigan—the rates of minority enrollment are lower than they used to be. But overall, the numbers look better than I expected when I started researching this. And in three states, some schools have gotten rid of legacy admissions. They’re still doing fine. Justice Ginsburg was critical of admissions policies that encourage racial diversity even though they’re ostensibly race-neutral. But these programs could be the future. And maybe, in the end, they’re a tool for greater fairness than what we have now.

Update, Jan. 25, 2013, 8:52 a.m.: The paragraph describing Stephen Burd’s report has been added after the article was published. (Return.)