Century Foundation senior fellow Richard D. Kahlenberg thinks college presidents are in denial about the future of affirmative action. According to a recent poll, more than three-quarters of college presidents believe that the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, the most recent legal challenge to affirmative action, will have only a minimal effect on their ability to consider race in admissions. But Kahlenberg, “the leading liberal against affirmative action,” disagrees. Writing in Inside Higher Ed, he predicts that the Supreme Court’s ruling will significantly limit the use of race in college admissions, and he urges college presidents to face this likelihood and begin exploring alternative, race-neutral methods of ensuring diversity in college admissions.
What alternatives to race-based affirmative action are available to colleges? Since students of color are disproportionately low-income, programs that consider students’ socioeconomic backgrounds have the power to increase both economic and racial/ethnic diversity. Kahlenberg and I explored some of these options last fall in a Century Foundation report, A Better Affirmative Action.
I’d like to call attention to three areas for reform where public flagship universities have successfully implemented race-neutral programs that promote diversity.
Make changes to admissions to increase low-income students’ access.
Programs like the Texas Top Ten Percent Plan increase representation of low-income students and students of color indirectly; Texas’ plan guarantees admission to public universities in the state for all Texas high school seniors in the top 10 percent of their graduating class (a group that includes wealthy suburban valedictorians as well as top graduates from under-resourced inner-city schools). But colleges can also ask direct questions about students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and use that information to give low-income students a leg up, considering their achievements in light of obstacles overcome. The statewide ApplyTexas application, for example, asks “Do you have family obligations that keep you from participating in extracurricular activities?”
Boost financial aid.
Changes to financial aid can serve as a way of attracting and retaining low-income students. The Collegebound Nebraska program, for example, offers free in-state tuition for Nebraska residents who are Pell Grant recipients and maintain minimum credit-hour and GPA requirements.
Develop recruitment and support programs for low-income students.
At Florida State University, the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement recruits first-generation and economically disadvantaged students through outreach in high schools and supports these students once enrolled with programs such as summer orientation and extra academic services.
Our report examined ten public flagship universities that eliminated the use of race in admissions at some point in the past two decades. At seven of them, the race-neutral admissions policies adopted to replace affirmative action either maintained or increased representation of African American and Latino students on campus.
If Kahlenberg is right, Fisher v. Texas might mean the end of affirmative action as we know it in higher education. But if college presidents embrace race-neutral alternatives, the end of affirmative action could open the way for greater student diversity.