As graduation season comes to a close, roughly 1.8 million Americans are expected to earn bachelor’s degrees this year.

The chance of being among these lucky grads, however, is much lower for poor students and students of color than for more-affluent and white students.

Fewer than 1-in-10 low-income Americans earns a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared to 3 out of 4 wealthy Americans. The rate of bachelor’s degree attainment by age 27 for black and Hispanic Americans is less than half that of white Americans.

Today, The Century Foundation and Lumina Foundation released a volume of new research on higher education diversity, containing proposals that could help change these statistics.

The Future of Affirmative Action examines challenges to current race-based affirmative action plans and offers promising new strategies for enrolling diverse student bodies and expanding college access.

Why Diversity Matters

Access to elite colleges matters.

Less than 1 percent of all current undergraduates in the United States attend the elite schools of Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, Cornell, Northwestern, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, or Dartmouth.

And yet, 42 percent of government leaders and 54 percent of corporate leaders hail from one of these twelve institutions.

In short, these institutions are gatekeepers to power. 

Now consider who gets the chance to attend the larger group of selective colleges. As of 2006, across 193 of the most selective institutions, just 5 percent of students were black and 7 percent were Hispanic, compared to a U.S. population that was 14 percent black and 16 percent Hispanic. Socioeconomic demographics were even more skewed.

At the most competitive colleges, just 5 percent of students enrolled were in the bottom socioeconomic quartile of the U.S. population, while 70 percent were from the top quartile.

Education should be the engine of upward mobility in our country, but low-income students and students of color frequently lack access to this opportunity.

We need better methods of increasing diversity at selective colleges and expanding access to disadvantaged students.

Race-based Affirmative Action Is Being Curtailed

Since the 1960s, race-based affirmative action has been the main way that selective colleges promote diversity on campus. But over the years, and particularly after two recent Supreme Court decisions, racial preferences in college admissions have become legally and politically vulnerable.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Fisher v. University of Texas that colleges must demonstrate they are using race in admissions only when “necessary,” meaning that no other methods could produce the same results.

Then in 2014, the Supreme Court’s decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action upheld the right of voters to decide on issues of affirmative action in their state. From 1996 to 2012, voters in six states (California, Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, and Oklahoma) banned affirmative action in public universities.

New Paths to Diversity

The good news is that as the doors to race-based affirmative action close, alternative methods of promoting diversity are being developed and implemented.

Eight states, educating 29 percent of all U.S. high schools students, already ban the consideration of race in admissions at public universities.

Universities in these states have developed new methods of promoting diversity by seeking socioeconomic and geographic diversity in admissions. These strategies could be models for other schools.

Furthermore, The Future of Affirmative Action proposes a number of new strategies for diversifying college enrollment.

  • Colleges could improve outreach to reduce “undermatching” of qualified students to less selective universities.

  • Admissions offices could also implement more sophisticated measures of socioeconomic status that consider family wealth, not just income, when measuring disadvantage.

Affirmative action as we know it is fading, but researchers and institutions are developing new methods of enrolling students of diverse backgrounds and expanding definitions of diversity to encompass not only race and ethnicity but also socioeconomic status, geography, home language, and variety of life experiences.

And, thankfully, some colleges and universities already are rising to the challenge.