An interesting and persuasive essay on affirmative action from the New York Times’s David Leonhardt makes an important point. The guiding principle behind affirmative action was fairness. However, in applying the principle of fairness, affirmative action programs simply filtered candidates by race — and failed to recognize any other criteria of disadvantage. Without adapting as society and culture evolve, it’s not clear that these programs are now still designed to meet their initial noble goals of ensuring equity — particularly in school admissions.
When affirmative action programs were first started, a filter of race made some sense: opportunities for minorities were few and far between, race was an obvious (and visible) quality, and other metrics of disadvantage were hard to come by and rarely scientific. But fast-forward a quarter-century, and in the current affirmative action case before the Supreme Court, much has changed:
With the courtroom overflowing, filled with people who have spent their careers fighting for or against affirmative action, only one side talked about fairness. And it was not the side defending affirmative action.
At question is the admissions policy of the University of Texas, whose defendants do not make claims that affirmative action is based in fairness, but instead that there are additional benefits to diversity. But even that argument rings hollow, for as Leonhardt notes, our best colleges and universities have “preferred a version of diversity focused on elites from every race” and have done almost nothing to broaden their criteria of disadvantage. These colleges, who possess perhaps the best set of tools to help disadvantaged students ascend the economic ladder, do not consider any economic criteria as a indicator of disadvantage.
For what this has meant is that minority students from low-income families do not receive any preference in relation to their wealthier peers. Leonhardt notes: “Low-income students, controlling for race, receive either no preference or a modest one, depending on which study you believe.” How does this promote fairness?
And the problem is deeply engrained in our institutions of higher learning. A study of the graduating class of 2010 from the most elite colleges and universities found that two-thirds of the students come from families in the top income quartile, and only 5 percent come from the bottom income quartile. This means that for the roughly 1,200 graduates of the top-ranked Princeton University, just 60 students are from families at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. And since a college education remains a strong indicator of better earning potential, they system perpetuates and reinforces this same inequality. With affirmative action at most prestigious universities focused almost entirely on race, under the current system — as the former president of Amherst College puts it — our institutions of higher education “are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”
Now Leonhardt does not wish to bury affirmative action, but to change it — to shift the focus solely from race to other measures of disadvantage: wealth, family structure and neighborhood poverty. And this area is one of the few where K-12 pubic education seems to be ahead of higher education, given the emphasis on low-income populations.
As with many educational policies, the shame here is that colleges and universities have had plenty of warning and opportunity to change themselves. Instead, their refusal to do so means it is likely that the Courts will force change upon them — not the legacy to which our best universities should aspire.