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Good Riddance, Affirmative Action: What’s Next?

There’s no way around it: affirmative action was a failure. Affirmative action sought to help non-White Americans overcome systemic barriers to equal opportunity. Considering the racial imbalances in education–funding inequities in primary/secondary schools, advanced coursework inaccessibility, and various non-academic factors–a system like affirmative action is necessary for approaching equal opportunity.

A system like affirmative action, but not affirmative action. 

But affirmative action increased Black/Latinx diversity, right? Well, sort of–but it’s not so simple. Harvard’s Black student admissions rate rose nearly 150% from 2012 (6.3%) to 2020, reaching a record high 15.8%. Demographically, Harvard achieved near-perfect representation (against a black U.S. population of 14.2%). Data indicates similar trends across other prestigious universities: racial representation increased with every admissions class. It seems elite colleges were on the cusp of proportionate racial representation. It looked as if these institutions were operating as intended…

But looks can be deceiving. 

A careful analysis of this supposed diversity reveals indulgence to the, albeit small, proportion of Black applicants who face few pre-college educational barriers. Instead of compensating for educational inequities, affirmative action strongly favored wealthier Black applicants. Harvard’s class of 2024 demographics noted 154 Black freshmen. According to Census data, we would expect just over 40 of these students to have come from impoverished families based on the 2020 Black-child poverty rate of around 27%. But the Harvard demographics showed only ten admits from these families. Although Harvard does not directly show the relationship between race and income, this relationship can be inferred based on the proportion of admitted families that qualified for total financial aid (less than $85,000/yr). Similar trends existed across other elite universities, like Brown

Despite some limitations in the demographic data (Harvard isn’t allowed to disclose everything), it is easy to estimate the racial breakdown of income spreads. Affirmative action was not a triumph over systemic obstruction but rather served as an avenue to elite education for relatively wealthy and privileged Black Americans.

If the sole goal of affirmative action was racial diversity, we must applaud the system for its success. But, the previous system did virtually nothing to address systemic racial inequality, and Americans agree that considerations of race should not belong in college admissions. Indeed, this system perpetuated discrimination against another minority group: Asian Americans.

The primary reason the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action was the racial discrimination against Asian Americans it invited, particularly among elite colleges. Since Harvard’s admissions process initiated many of these anti-race-conscious admissions dialogues, it would be best to use this private college as a central example. Harvard has faced scrutiny over its use of personality ratings as a means to methodically discriminate against Asian Americans. A 2020 study confirmed that there was a “substantial penalty against Asian Americans in admissions,” and that they would have been “admitted at a rate 19% higher absent this penalty.” In consistently rating Asian Americans lower on various personality traits, Harvard established a method for unfairly barring many of them from acceptance.

The recent Supreme Court decision affords us a valuable opportunity to examine a well-intentioned (but failed) system and correct it. It’s clear that this system did not work as intended. However, refusing to acknowledge the lack of racial diversity in higher education (prior to the most recent admissions class) is not a solution either. 

Prior to 2023, the lack of racial diversity in elite institutions was glaring; racial imbalances at pre-college educational levels must be factored into admissions equations. Otherwise, an entire demographic of Americans will never have equal opportunity at the most valuable academic level. But picking candidates from a batch of the wealthiest Black families and boasting “racial diversity” does not establish equal opportunity. True, it may be tough to sift through an ocean of candidates and determine who would have excelled given fair opportunities, but the future of American education demands this effort.

A better solution looks like this: conduct the admissions process through the lens of income rather than race. In the context of higher education, racial disparities and income distributions overlap substantially. A successful income-conscious admissions system would account for systemic educational barriers without assuming all Black Americans fit into a homogenous experience.

But hold on. I’m not claiming income is the sole cause of systemic racism in America. As it concerns educational discrepancies, however, income inequality is a more prominent culprit than racial inequality. 

Theoretically, a socioeconomic system should indirectly boost racial diversity in elite colleges without discriminating against White and Asian Americans. Maybe not to the extent that affirmative action lifted minority percentage points, but progress is progress. Even a system prioritizing income with a slight consideration of race would be better than affirmative action. 

So why, then, do people oppose income-conscious admissions?

​​Many argue that socioeconomic considerations would not increase racial diversity nearly as much as affirmative action. A 2016 study analyzed the importance of “gifted and talented programs” in primary & secondary education to academic growth and eventual success. The study also explored potential racial discrepancies in the referral process for qualified students. Jason A. Grissom and Christopher Redding documented that “even among students with high standardized test scores, Black students are less likely to be assigned to gifted services in both math and reading, a pattern that persists when controlling for other background factors, such as health and socioeconomic status, and characteristics of classrooms and schools.” As their study progressed, they explored the benefits that racially underrepresented recipients of “government services” receive from “diversity in the providers of those services.” These findings apply to teachers: “Even after conditioning on test scores and other factors, Black students indeed are referred to gifted programs, particularly in reading, at significantly lower rates when taught by non-Black teachers, a concerning result given the relatively low incidence of assignment to own-race teachers among Black students.” 

Others point toward higher rates of race-based bullying in lower education levels, which can hurt a young child’s social, emotional, and “behavioral development.” The intersection of income inequality and race paints a dreary picture of the current educational landscape. 

Granted, a purely income-conscious admissions system would not cast a wide enough net to account for every instance of racial inequality affecting educational opportunities. Nor would it consistently evaluate hypotheticals of candidates’ academic performance had they experienced equal opportunity. However, these shortcomings do not render this system ineffective; the current admissions system (without affirmative action) does considerably less. A comprehensive simulation of various admissions policies cites that although “practical SES-based affirmative action policies do not yield nearly as much racial diversity as do race-based policies,” a socioeconomic status (SES) affirmative action policy would positively affect racial diversity, particularly in elite colleges. 

Considering the lack of racial diversity in elite higher education stems primarily from pre-college factors, it seems unfair that the responsibility for addressing this issue befalls universities. Yet at the same time, this rationale should not excuse these institutions from the responsibility of increasing their racial diversity. Adopting an income-based admissions system would increase racial diversity in elite colleges without discriminating against Asian Americans or categorizing and stereotyping Black Americans. Abolishing affirmative action in college admissions was the first step in achieving a diverse array of students in higher education. If nothing replaces it, elite colleges will quickly become less racially diverse. Without an improved system, higher education will reflect and perpetuate racial inequalities present elsewhere in American society.

Featured Image Source: Patrick Semansky | Associated Press

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