“If we do not dramatically expand college access and opportunity for poor students generally and minority students specifically, we are headed for a catastrophe … [we will lose] the very talent that can rebuild our communities and create civic renewal.”

Nancy Cantor, president of Rutgers University, and her colleague Peter Englot, speak with a sense of urgency as they call on university administrators to increase college access for marginalized students.

Yet, after recent the Supreme Court decisions in Fisherand Schuette, which ruled against race-based admissions, how can we attain adequate levels of diversity on college campuses without using race as a factor in the admissions process?

The most effective way to provide a conducive learning environment is for university officials to consider the applicant’s socioeconomic status, according to Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at TCFand author of The Future of Affirmative Action: New Paths to Higher Education Diversity after Fisher v. University of Texas.

Administrators at the University of Colorado Boulder have taken the lead in this method.

Amendment 46: A Challenge to Affirmative Action

In 2008, Amendment 46 was brought before Colorado voters to decide whether to ban affirmative action policies across the state.

Before the vote, admissions officials at CU Boulder were put on alert that they may need to reform admission procedures, as affirmative action banshad passed in California, Washington, Florida, and Michigan. In a rather proactive response, administrators frantically searched for race-neutral alternatives that could produce sufficient diversity.

Enter Matthew Gaertner, a research scientist at the Center for College and Career Success at Pearson.

Gaertner, who was hired by CU Boulder to develop a new admissions policy to promote diversity, worked closely alongside university officials on new methods to measure disadvantage and achievement.

Together, the collaborators designed the Disadvantage Index, which measures socioeconomic disadvantage, and the Overachievement Index, which determines the degree to which students have been able to overcome socioeconomic obstacles.

These indexes include a student’s:

  • native language
  • parents’ education level
  • family income level
  • student-teacher ratio
  • percentage of students from the applicant’s high school eligible for free or reduced-price lunch

Based on these characteristics, applicants could be granted an “admissions boost,” improving their chance for admission at the flagship school.

Is Class-based Affirmative Action Effective?

Although Amendment 46 failed to pass by a narrow margin, CU officials decided to continue with the development of the new admissions proposal.

To test the effectiveness of this policy to achieve desired levels of diversity, officials conducted an experiment with applications. They judged applications based on the old race-based system, followed by the new class-based proposal.

When comparing projected acceptance rates using the two systems, the number of students with low socioeconomic status (SES) that were admitted improved. Racial and ethnic diversity also improved, as underrepresented minority (URM) admits increased as well.

Since using race as a factor in admissions was still legal, in 2011 CU Boulder officials decided to implement a class-plus-race admissions policy in order to achieve the greatest levels of diversity.

Under this model, racial diversity levels have increased significantly. While students of color made up only 16.2 percent of the total population in 2010, this percentage rose to 20.3 percent in 2013.

Why Universities Should Embrace a Class-based Admissions Policy

Racial and socioeconomic disparities affect the likelihood of an individual to attain a bachelor’s degree.

While 34 percent of whites have a four-year degree, this number shrinks to 20 percent for blacks and 14 percent for Latinos. Individuals with a higher socioeconomic standing are also much more likely to pursue higher education versus their peers from lower income levels.

By 2018, the majority of individuals under the age of eighteen will be people of color, according to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau. Universities will thus see more applications from students of color.

As this country becomes more diverse, marginalized students cannot continue to be left out of institutions of higher education.

Officials must rethink admissions strategies not only because race-based policies will continue to be challenged in court, but because class-based policies lead to greater diversity levels which benefit the entire student body.

Until admissions officers acknowledge the plight of marginalized youth and learn to value their talent, universities will continue to act as engines of inequality.

Read the new volume, The Future of Affirmative Action for more information. Also, we’ve compiled a round-up of recent commentary on the topic, including a writeup on affirmative action’s future.