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Affirmative Action Should Now Be Based On Income, Not Race

Memo Pad

Affirmative Action Should Now Be Based On Income, Not Race


It’s time for a new system of preferences for college admissions. After decades of supporting modest race-based affirmative action policies, I know when it’s time to throw in the towel.

The U.S. Supreme Court, now rigidly conservative, is reviewing a case that will allow it to toss out admissions policies that take account of race or ethnicity, even if it’s one among several other factors. And John Roberts’ court will probably take that opportunity, offered up by a lawsuit a white applicant filed against the University of Texas when she was denied admission.

Still, that’s no reason for supporters of diversity to give up on an admissions process that’s more than a rubber stamp for the most privileged. Highly selective colleges — that top tier of educational institutions that accept only a small percentage of applicants — should start offering preferences to promising students from poor and working-class backgrounds, let’s say family incomes under $50,000 a year.

If they did that, those institutions would still draw some racial diversity (though perhaps not as much), while also helping to close the large and growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. Let’s see if we can start to create a more diverse leadership cohort for American industry, politics and letters by focusing on the real divide in education: class.

Drawing from lower-earning households would have the advantage of ending the bitter debates over race-based affirmative action. It would be much harder to construct a rationale against giving preferences to good students who didn’t grow up attending fancy private schools and going to SAT study sessions.

I thought that racial preferences might have a few more years before they were tossed aside. It’s only been nine years since Grutter v. Bollinger, when the Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities could give race a small role in their admissions processes.

Writing for the 5-4 majority in 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor included an expiration date. “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today,” she said. That would have given colleges until 2028 to use race as one factor among many others, such as artistic talent or leadership skills, to increase the diversity of their classes.

Cynthia Tucker Haynes

Cynthia Tucker Haynes, a veteran newspaper journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, is a Visiting Professor of Journalism and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Georgia. She is also a highly-regarded commentator on TV and radio news shows.

Haynes was editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper for 17 years, where she led the development of opinion policy. More recently, she was that newspaper’s Washington-based political columnist. She maintains a syndicated column through Universal Press Syndicate, which is published in dozens of newspapers around the country. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007, Haynes has also received numerous other awards, including Journalist of the Year from the National Association of Black Journalists.

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  1. Richard C. Kelley October 20, 2012

    I, too, have spent years fighting for race-based affirmative action, starting with chairing the cabinet-level Affirmative Action Task Force in the City of Seattle. We were extraordinarily effective, not just in the hiring, training and promotion of ethnic minorities, but also for women and disabled persons.

    Later, after completing my doctorate, as a college professor I saw the overwhelming advantage students had when they had attended a strong high school. These students were not smarter or more talented than those from poor high schools, they just had been given a key advantage. At that time (1980’s) their advantage overlapped with the advantage of being white (as am I) so that it did not make much separate difference.

    Now with the growth of the black middle class and the segregation of upper-income whites and minorities out of the public schools into religious and charter schools, there is a huge difference between assisting minorities generally and assisting lower-income students. In addition, the draining of middle-class jobs and families out of rural schools is making a rural education a huge, separate disadvantage.

    The overarching importance of addressing this disparity is because of the rapid loss of economic equality and social mobility in our nation.

    The best solution I can see is 1) colleges and universities preferentially admitting students from both low income families and poor schools, rural or urban; 2) the elite universities, public and private, agreeing together to limit sharply the number of students they admit from any one school and to place greater emphasis on each student’s rank in high school class.

    Combined, these policies would reduce conflict among racial groups, as Ms. Tucker notes, reduce the disadvantages of birth, reduce the incentives to parents to pull their children out of the public schools, and over time increase social mobility and our society’s use of our greatest talents.

    1. Jim Lou October 22, 2012

      You say

      2) the elite universities, public and private, agreeing together to limit sharply the number of students they admit from any one school and to place greater emphasis on each student’s rank in high school class.

      I find this to be wrong. My daughter went to very elite and competitive HS in NYC where the GPA among the top 10% were very close. The range in the top 5% was .25 while the range for the 10% was .6.

      My daughter was in the top 10% and therefore didn’t get into schools like Princeton and Brown, where she applied, but got into schools like Williams College. Princeton and Brown seemed to have a quota while Williams didn’t.

      In any case the Supreme Court case involved a Texas where the applicants in a certain percentage of ranking were guaranteed admittance. It just happened though that race was also involved.

  2. bud2011 October 22, 2012

    Affirmative action is just a form of segregation that favors one race over another and should be eliminated.

  3. nobsartist October 22, 2012

    How about this? Why not make higher learning free for anyone that pledges to work for the public for twice the amount of time they are schooled?

    Many nations have FREE college, but then again, many nations also have nationalized health care.

    Why does America hate itself so much?

    1. Joel Sorenson October 22, 2012

      yOU KNOW fREE COLLEGE OR TRADE SCHOOL IS ONE (sorry caps lock) of the things that should absolutely be a given…HS should be MUUUCH harder and anyone not interested in academics should be trained in a new high tech trade. If you graduate HS with sufficently high scores you should be gaurenteed higher education. If you need a tune up before college community college should be free. THE ONLY WAY FORWARD IS AN EDUCATED WORKFORCE. We cannot move forward with the status quo…every year the gap is widening. We cannot keep making excuses we must start making changes.

    2. Bill October 23, 2012

      There used to be a deal where college loans were forgiven for years spent teaching or doing some other type of general good work. What happened to that?

  4. PamelaT October 22, 2012

    I am learning that as my triplets are now applying for schools. Schools are looking for geographic diverse students (any race but from a different state), minorities if the school is predominantly white etc. For example, Some Schools in the Southwest are predominately Hispanic they are looking for diversity of non-Hispanic. Affirmative Action should address income based barriers also.


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