As invested parties prepare for the Supreme Court’s hearing of Fisher II in the upcoming session, the higher education community has reignited the debate surrounding race-conscious affirmative action. Simultaneously, colleges and universities across the country continue to struggle with the issue of “campus climate” as it relates to race. Just within the past academic year, Colgate University students staged a sit-in over racist posts on the social media app Yik Yak and other students protested after University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers were caught on video engaging in a racist chant. Schools across the nation tried to educate their students about racially ignorant party themes, while students of color confronted campus police about inequitable detainments, arrests, and party management policies.
Many advocates fear that a ruling that eliminates or severely cripples race-conscious affirmative action will jeopardize the ability of universities to enroll enough minority students to diversify their institutions. Other experts, including Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg, have research evidence which shows that sound socioeconomic affirmative action policies not only give economically disadvantaged white students equal footing in the college admissions process, but can ultimately produce similar rates of racial integration as that of race-based affirmative action.
The arguments of class-based affirmative action supporters were unintentionally bolstered by a recent report published by the American Council on Education (ACE), which found that universities themselves believe that the most effective ways of achieving a diverse student body did not necessarily include race-based affirmative action, but instead a combination of targeted recruitment measures, holistic admissions policies, and [articulation] agreements with community colleges. However, because the Supreme Court’s first Fisher v. Texas ruling implored admissions offices to consider an applicant’s race as a last resort, colleges and universities may have to brace themselves to compete for bright minority students in a world without race-based affirmative action.
Why Class Matters for Racial Well-being
Whether one is a critic or defender of race-conscious admissions policies, anyone who is interested in maximizing the value of diversity on college campuses must acknowledge that class is an essential element in creating an inclusive and engaging campus. A study authored by Julie Park, a professor of education at University of Maryland, College Park, and a supporter of race- conscious admissions policies, reveals that an economically diverse student body supports and improves a positive racial climate by facilitating intergroup interactions and encouraging students to engage in diversity-related activities.
The reason behind this finding is surprisingly simple. Due to pervasive residential segregation by both race and class, affluent white students are the college demographic least likely to associate with those that are different from them. Among lower income whites—who experience lower degrees of housing isolation and are more likely to attend diverse high schools alongside lower income minorities—racial boundaries are more porous. Similarly, underrepresented minorities have broader networks of friendship and interaction across both race and class. White students of lower socioeconomic status (SES) who would be most likely to benefit from the consideration of economic status in admissions are also more likely to engage cross-racially—mainly because they are more likely to have done so before.
Park’s research resonates with my personal experiences in college as a black student at Wake Forest University. Within my social circle of friends, my minority friends were socioeconomically diverse, but the white friends that joined us were typically unlike the predominantly wealthy, white students that seemed to dominate campus. I discovered, firsthand, that the white students who attended multicultural events, enrolled in ethnic studies classes, shared meals, and formed meaningful friendships with minority students also seemed to be the first generation students—the kids who woke up early to complete work study in the library’s Starbucks, frantically filling out the FAFSA forms every spring. These students did not wish to form an island for themselves, and so they often found community with minority students who understood the experience of attending an elite institution without having an elite background.
Increased socioeconomic diversity has the potential to make these relationships more common. One result of more diversity is that there is less socioeconomic privilege to consolidate along racial lines; rich white students will have fewer opportunities to form socioeconomically and racially isolated social networks and will instead be further encouraged to engage across lines of race and class.
Making Diversity Mean More
Simply assembling a racially diverse group of people does not automatically lead to positive outcomes. Park’s study admits that “engagement with racial diversity…is influenced not just by explicitly racial dimensions of diversity, but also by various forms of socioeconomic diversity.”
According to the new ACE report, a full 60 percent of the most selective institutions—those admitting fewer than 40 percent of applicants—consider race in admissions decisions. These institutions have simultaneously committed to increasing the structural diversity of their student bodies through more traditional means, such as targeted recruiting efforts and [articulation] agreements, or, less commonly, through percentage plans (like the system currently in place at University of Texas), test-optional admissions policies, or a reduced emphasis on legacy admissions.
And yet, despite these good faith efforts by admissions offices, racial stratification and conflict continues to plague universities. The severe cross-cutting cleavage point between class and race amplifies a fundamental observation: there are not enough low-income white students to form cross-racial alliances; that by-and-large, the wealthy white students at the top of the social food chain have little incentive to communicate with those who are demographically different. At many universities, that critical mass of both wealth and whiteness is currently enough to insulate most of these students from their peers.
On a social justice front, an increased emphasis on class-conscious admissions yields greater potential for anti-racist movements on campuses. Black and brown students are not disadvantaged by this policy, and lower income whites are increasingly able to speak about multiculturalism in spaces that are difficult for minorities to enter.
From the perspective of fairness, research shows that kids from low-SES backgrounds (regardless of race) must overcome a tremendous opportunity deficit in order to reach college. Socioeconomic factors account for a nearly 400 point gap in SAT scores between the most and least economically advantaged students—the least being those who attended a school where a high percentage of peers receive free or reduced price lunch, those born to a parent who dropped out of high school, or those who work low-wage or low-skilled jobs. That SAT score gap widens even further when researchers factor in “choices” students make that are constrained by socioeconomic status—like having to work a job while in high school.
Whether alongside or in lieu of race-conscious admissions, colleges ought to consider adding class-conscious affirmative action to their admissions policies. Not only are the recipient students of this policy resilient, having overcome clear, empirical disadvantages to rise to the level of college readiness, they are also the type of students who are most likely to treat diversity as something more than colorful slices on a pie chart.
Having student bodies that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the communities that surround them is a valid dream for university officials. But if the college campus also reflects the stratification between rich and poor and the segregation between black and white that exists in those same communities, colleges are not reducing social problems—they are recreating them. Universities that purport to produce leaders, to be innovative, and to value diversity must create campus communities that are in line to foster these goals. A large part of that starts with recognizing low-income students of all races as a blessing rather than a liability in the fight for true educational excellence.