What does the future of affirmative action look like?

Last week, the Lumina Foundation and The Century Foundationpresented the Lumina Ideas Summit: New Paths to Higher Education to discuss diversity on college campuses after recent affirmative action bans.

In case you weren’t able to tune into the event, here are five important takeaways.

Diversity Matters

Similar to grains of sand in an hourglass, keynote speaker Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University, emphasized we are running out of time to reverse current educational policies that funnel talented students out of higher ed. Unsurprisingly, most of these students are low-income students of color.

As the United States becomes an increasingly diverse nation, diversity has a very real purpose on college campuses. “Diverse life experiences can strongly enrich the quality, creativity, and complexity of group thinking and problem solving…Learning how to work and learn and live across difference is a prerequisite to a vibrant democracy,” according to Nancy Cantor and Peter Englot.

Unless we want to create a permanent underclass and stifle progress within this country, we must break down barriers to higher education.

Affirmative Action Has Changed

In Grutter v. Bollinger, which challenged the constitutionality of race-based admissions at the University of Michigan, the Supreme Court acknowledged “attaining a diverse student body is at the heart of [a university’s] proper institutional mission.”

In Fisher, the Supreme Court ruled race could, in fact, still be considered in admissions to achieve a diverse student body. However, the institution must show “strict-scrutiny,” meaning there is no other sufficient race-neutral method available, to achieve the necessary amount of diversity.

It will be tricky for four-year institutions to exclusively use race as a factor in admissions. They must be proactive and devise race-neutral policies instead.

Alternatives to Race-Based Admissions

As race-based affirmative action programs continue to be challenged politically, many institutions of higher education are turning to race-neutral systems.

Following the 1996 ban on affirmative action, the University of Texas at Austin developed the Top 10 Percent Plan, which automatically admits the top ten percent of seniors graduating from any high school within Texas. As a race-neutral policy, it increased the number of students of color on campus.

In the face of a voter initiative to ban affirmative action in 2008, Matthew Gaertner,research scientist at Pearson, showed how the University of Colorado Boulder took considerable steps to make sure diversity would not be compromised if the initiative passed.

Socioeconomic class was factored into the admissions process (instead of race), which boosted admissions rates for students of color.

Out with Legacy Preferences

If the admissions process wasn’t already tilted toward affluent whites, legacy preferences only exacerbate the problem of income inequality in higher education. In Affirmative Action for the Rich, TCF’s Richard Kahlenberg argues legacy preferences perpetuate race- and class-based inequality.

Colleges and universities that engage in this practice are doing society (and themselves) a disservice by placing families of alumni on a pedestal. Institutions must shift their perspectives to provide more opportunities for first generation and low-income students instead of building barriers.

Selective Institutions Must Take the Lead

The most selective 193 colleges and universities in the United States are not making racial and economic diversity a top priority. They must change their attitudes and take the lead in developing policies to boost admissions rates for low-income students and students of color.

Other institutions will be sure to follow.

What’s Next?

Following the Fisher and Schuettecases, universities will be forced to reconsider their race-based admissions policies. If properly developed, the alternative race-neutral policies can open the door for many disadvantaged students and produce increased levels of diversity.

We can only hope these policies are created sooner, rather than later. We cannot afford for more disadvantaged students to fall to the bottom of the hourglass, which will continue to impede their chances for socioeconomic mobility.

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 an excellent post by Halley Potter on affirmative action’s future.