With the United States Supreme Court ready to rule on a case that could change or even ban the use of race in college admissions, New York Times columnist Bill Keller shares his views on the work of Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg and why it may be time for Kahlenberg’s proposals to use economic advantage preferences instead of just racial ones in college admissions.

From the Keller column:

…over the years, following the work of scholars like Richard Kahlenberg at the Century Foundation, Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown and Marta Tienda of Princeton, I’ve come to think there may be a better way to accomplish diversity: namely, by shifting attention from race to class. The idea is controversial, the execution is complicated and it doesn’t come cheap, but it promises a richer kind of variety — and it is less likely to run afoul of the Supreme Court.

…sooner or later, racial preferences, which were originally designed to be temporary, will end. Whatever the court decides in the pending case, it is time for college administrators to shift their attention decisively away from racial preferences to an affirmative action based on class…

…Economic inequality is increasingly recognized as an even greater menace to our national well-being than racial discrimination. Huge and growing disparities of wealth contribute to a shift of political power from the many to the privileged few, retard economic growth and productivity, and undermine the values we profess. So affirmative action that puts poor and working-class students on the on-ramp to success is good for our economy, legitimizing for our democracy and consistent with our values. Racism is still a toxic reality in our country. But the gulf between the wealthy and the poor is wider and even more socially corrosive than the gap between black and white. And basing college admissions on economic status does not mean giving up on racial diversity, because…

As it happens, a well-designed program of socioeconomic preference also increases minority enrollment. Racial preferences don’t help all that much in promoting class diversity, because selective colleges heavily favor minorities from middle-class and affluent families; but class-based preferences favor minorities, because blacks and Hispanics are more heavily represented among the poor. It is true that affirmative action based on economic disadvantage has not proved to be quite as effective as explicit racial preferences at bolstering minority … But a class-based system can come close. At the University of California’s Irvine campus, which introduced class-based admissions after Proposition 209, the number of students who are the first in their families to attend college has risen dramatically, and black and Hispanic enrollment has roughly doubled. There are many other examples in a 2012 Century Foundation study. As Kahlenberg and Carnavale have pointed out, minorities would benefit even more from class-based admissions if the formula took into account one indicator that is generally not counted: a family’s net worth. Because wealth is accumulated over generations, it captures the legacy of slavery and segregation much better than income.

The biggest obstacle to class-based affirmative action, as Richard Perez-Pena pointed out in The Times the other day, is the obvious one: cost. Poor and working-class students are by definition in need of more financial aid. That is why universities have shown little interest in switching. It’s cheaper to bring in students of color from middle-class or affluent families. (It also brings in kids with higher SAT test scores, which count so heavily in the obsessively watched college rankings.) Cost is the reason that even many proponents of class-based affirmative action favor what Tienda calls “a holistic approach” — class and race both.

“I’m sympathetic to that,’ counters Kahlenberg, “but I think that in the real world universities will never get around to addressing class as long as they have race as one of their instruments.”

If he’s wrong about that, it’s up to the universities to prove it.

For more information on senior fellow Rick Kahlenberg, including his recent work on college admissions and affirmative action, please visit Rick Kahlenberg’s page.