The two of us have worked together for a decade and a half to improve opportunities for economically disadvantaged and minority students, including collaboration on two edited volumes, America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education (2004) and Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College (2010). We have different training (Carnevale has a doctorate in public finance economics and Kahlenberg has a law degree), but consider ourselves partners in the fight to make selective colleges more open to disadvantaged students.

We were surprised, and dismayed, therefore, to read Nikole Hannah-Jones’s article in Pro Publica, “Class Action: A Challenge to the Idea that Income Can Integrate America’s Campuses,” which portrayed the two of us as antagonists on the issue of affirmative action—Kahlenberg as a “champion” of class-based affirmative action, and Carnevale and his colleague Stephen J. Rose as “skeptics.” To set the record straight:

  • We both agree that racial discrimination continues to impose harm on students, and that economic deprivation imposes additional harms. These are separate and distinct disadvantages.
  • We are both concerned that selective universities and colleges pay much less attention to achieving economic diversity than racial diversity. In Carnevale’s research with Stephen J. Rose of the nation’s most selective 146 college and universities, race-based affirmative action triples the representation of black and Latino students, compared with a system of admissions based mostly on grades and test scores, while students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds receive no boost in representation whatsoever.
  • We both believe that the inattention to class is especially unwarranted given the growing disadvantages associated with socioeconomic deprivation. According to Carnevale’s research with Jeff Strohl, when one controls for various socioeconomic factors, being African American (compared to being white) predicts an SAT score that is 56 points lower. By comparison, being disadvantaged by a range of socioeconomic factors predicts an SAT score that is 399 points lower. (Those factors include being low income, having a parent who is a high school dropout, a father who is a laborer, having a non-college-going peer group, attending a public high school with a high percentage of students eligible for free and reduce price lunch, living in a neighborhood with few heads of households with a graduate education, living in the south, having no college savings, and having a dropout sibling.)
  • We both believe that class-based affirmative action programs that looks only at income are inadvisable and unfair because they will not produce sufficient racial diversity and because they do not adequately address socioeconomic obstacles that disproportionately impact students of color such as low wealth, concentrated poverty, and single parent household status.
  • We both believe that more sophisticated class-based affirmative programs—that include consideration of a range of socioeconomic disadvantages—would be fairer than an income-only program and also produce more racial diversity. According to Carnevale and Rose’s study, a strict consideration of objective factors like grades and test scores would produce a student body at the most selective 146 colleges and universities that is 4% African American and Latino, as compared with 12% under the current system, which considers race as a factor in admissions. Using several socioeconomic factors—being in the bottom 40 percent by socioeconomic status (defined as parents’ income, education, and occupation); and/or attending high schools with a high percentage (>25%) of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch or low percentage (<25%) of seniors going on to four year colleges — raises the proportion of black and Latino students to 10%, far better than a system of grades and test scores, but still below the 12% achieved using race in admissions.
  • We both believe there is evidence that including additional socioeconomic factors beyond parental income, education, and occupation, and high school quality, could raise that 10% black and Latino representation further. Wealth, for example, helps to capture this nation’s legacy of slavery and segregation better than income because wealth is accumulated over generations. Research finds that having low net worth has an independent effect on one’s educational chances, net of income, because it affects whether one can afford to buy a home in a good neighborhood with good schools, and whether a student has the confidence that if she works hard she can afford to attend college. And while black median income is 62 percent of white income, black median net worth is just 5 percent of white net worth. As Carnevale has noted, using a sophisticated and robust wealth factor in admissions could very well maintain—or even exceed—levels of racial diversity currently achieved employing race-based affirmative action. (The 56 SAT point racial residual in Carnevale and Strohl’s study employed a weak wealth variable determined by college savings.)

While we agree on 95% of the class vs. race question on affirmative action, we do have a modest disagreement on tactics.

Carnevale takes a principled approach that because racial discrimination does have an impact on the life chances of students, race should count—along with socioeconomic status—as a factor in admissions. As a logical matter, he suggests, even though counting a variety of socioeconomic factors can reduce the race residual to 56 points (and better wealth variables might reduce it to zero points), public policies should forthrightly address racial discrimination by counting race per se in admission, alongside of socioeconomic status.

Kahlenberg emphasizes pragmatism and counsels against using race for four reasons. First, he sees moral, political and social costs to using race as a factor in deciding who gets ahead (including increased resentment, which drives a wedge between black, Latino, and working class white voters). Second, he notes as a legal matter, the Supreme Court has never allowed the use of race as a counter to general “societal discrimination.” Third, he believes there is evidence that carefully constructed class-based affirmative action can produce considerable racial and ethnic diversity. And fourth, he sees evidence that as a practical matter, so long as universities can employ race in admissions, most will never consider class. Only when race is taken off the table do large numbers of universities begin to aggressively pursue socioeconomic diversity as a way of indirectly increasing racial diversity.

While there is a small amount of daylight between us on tactical questions, then, it is incorrect to label us as fundamentally antagonistic on the question of race and class-based affirmative action. On all the central core issues, we are in agreement, a fact that readers of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s article would not come away understanding.