The debate over how to address the growing level of income inequality in America has taken a new direction, away from the historical practice of race-based affirmative action and instead toward class-based efforts. Richard Kahlenberg, TCF senior fellow, highlights the advantages of this shift in the context of higher education admissions.

In Kahlenberg’s recent article published in The Atlantic, “Race-Based Admissions: The Right Goal, but the Wrong Policy,” he references Martin Luther King, Jr. who originally championed race-blind affirmative action. In his 1965 book, Why We Can’t Wait, King confirmed the need for a “Bill of the Rights for the Disadvantaged” that at the time disproportionately benefited black people and aimed to lessen the effects of racism. However, King also boldly stated, “It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.”

Following King’s 1968 assassination, the United States instead adopted a race-based approach to affirmative action, which has remained the dominant narrative until the past decade. This race-based approach has not alleviated the income inequality gap, however, and so class-based programs once again are attracting attention, including that of influential figures such as Robert Putnam, former President Bill Clinton, and President Barack Obama.

Kahlenberg, who has been a longtime champion of class-based affirmative-action, points to recent trends in higher education as an indicator of the change in national sentiment. Public universities in eight states, including California to Michigan and Nebraska, have dropped race-based measures to maintain diversity, instead pursuing a range of alternatives:

  • class-based admissions preferences
  • increased financial-aid budgets
  • the creation of new partnerships with disadvantaged high schools
  • placing an increased emphasis on high-school class rank over test scores, and
  • beefing up transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions.

Several lawsuits have also arisen from the admissions criteria debate, including Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the Supreme Court ruled that universities must bear “the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.”

The success of these renewed admissions criteria is reflected not only in the continued diversity of university demographics, but is also supported by public opinion. Evidently, young Americans are deeply resistant to affirmative action, which is seen in a 2012 Georgetown University survey of young adults ages 18 through 25 that showed only one in five supported racial preferences to make up for past discrimination. In line with progressive public opinion, Kahlenberg recommends that higher education institutions should vow its commitment to combating economic inequality via race-neutral alternatives.