Over the past decade and a half, I've given talks on dozens of college campuses about the need to increase socioeconomic diversity, but never before had I witnessed what I observed during a recent speech at Middlebury College.
Before introducing me, students from the sponsoring organization, Money at Midd, began the forum by publicly announcing their names and how much they and their families paid each year in tuition and fees. The first student, Samuel Koplinka-Loehr, said that his family paid about $18,000, and that he added $3,000 from his job. He passed the microphone to the next student, who said his family paid the full $56,000 comprehensive fee. A young woman said that her family could not afford to pay anything, but that she worked to pay $1,200 toward college costs.
I was dumbstruck, then elated, by the frank nature of the exchange. At Middlebury—and on campuses throughout the country—class is coming out of the closet.
Long hidden from view, economic status is emerging from the shadows, as once-taboo discussions are taking shape. The growing economic divide in America, and on American campuses, has given rise to new student organizations, and new dialogues, focused on raising awareness of class issues—and proposing solutions. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to curtail the consideration of race in college admissions this year, the role of economic disadvantage as a basis for preferences could further raise the salience of class.
This interest represents a return to an earlier era. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, class concerns animated Marxists on campus and New Deal politicians in the public sphere. Both groups papered over important dimensions of race and gender to focus on the nation's economic divide. Programs like Federal Housing Administration-guaranteed loans and the GI Bill provided crucial opportunities for upward mobility to some working-class families and students.
Colleges, meanwhile, began using the SAT to identify talented working-class candidates for admission. But FHA loans, the GI Bill, and the SAT still left many African-Americans, Latinos, and women out in the cold.
In the 1960s and 70s, that narrow class focus was rightly challenged by civil-rights activists, feminists, and advocates of gay rights, who shined new light on racism, sexism and homophobia. Black studies, women's studies, and later gay studies took root on college campuses, along with affirmative-action programs in student admissions and faculty employment to correct for the lack of attention paid to marginalized groups by politicians and academics alike.
Somewhere along the way, however, the pendulum swung to the point that issues of class were submerged. Admissions officers, for example, paid close attention to racial and ethnic diversity, but little to economic diversity. William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, and his colleagues reported in 2005 that being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever. Campuses became more racially and ethnically diverse—and all-male colleges began admitting women—but students from the most advantaged socioeconomic quartile of the population came to outnumber students from the least advantaged quartile at selective colleges by 25 to 1, according to a 2004 study by the Century Foundation.
Today's students have come of age at a time when the advantages of economic privilege are greater than ever before.
At the top 20 American law schools, Richard H. Sander, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, found in a recent study, just 2 percent of students came from the bottom socioeconomic quartile, while more than three-quarters hailed from the richest quartile. The representation of economically disadvantaged students at elite law schools, he wrote, "is comparable to racial representation 50 years ago, before the civil-rights revolution."
Thankfully, doors remain open to low-income students at community colleges and some less-selective four-year institutions, where it is sometimes possible to receive an excellent education. But the dual system of American higher education, with low-income and working-class students concentrated in two-year colleges and wealthy students in the most-selective four-year institutions, means we are showering the greatest opportunities on the already advantaged.
Community colleges spent an average of about $13,000 per full-time-equivalent student in 2009, while private four-year research institutions spent almost $67,000 per student. Graduation rates are higher at selective four-year colleges than at nonselective four-and two-year colleges, even when comparing students with similar entering academic qualifications. And access to professional networks at selective colleges can translate into greater wages, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds.
It is hard to know precisely why colleges turned a blind eye to class while maintaining a relatively more progressive stance on issues of race and gender. It may be that their officials were more attuned to racial and gender inequality because it is more visible, rendering them more accountable. Addressing class inequality is more expensive than addressing racial and gender inequities because low-income students need financial aid, which may mean smaller budgets for libraries or faculty salaries. And it is possible that many college officials, as participants or witnesses to the heroic movements for black liberation, women's rights, and gay freedom, resented white working-class applicants, who to some symbolized racist, sexist, and homophobic resistance to progress.
Somewhere along the way, the white working-class candidate who overcame odds ceased to be seen as the sympathetic striver and became the unattractive offspring of Archie Bunker. According to Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford's 2009 book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, at highly selective private colleges, lower-class white students were a third as likely to be admitted as upper-middle-class white students who were otherwise similarly qualified.
Class issues popped up periodically in public discussion but never gained traction. In the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton briefly suggested shifting the basis of affirmative-action policies from race and gender to class "because they work better and have a bigger impact and generate broader support," civil-rights and women's groups killed the idea. While Clinton was right that public opinion supported a class-based approach, no organized constituency championed preferences for the poor and working classes.
In 1996, California became the first of several states to ban affirmative action by voter initiative, and universities in that state and others began to focus on socioeconomic status as an indirect way to produce racial diversity. But the motivation was still centered on racial outcomes. As UCLA's Sander told me, "Only one out of every 20 people I've talked to in the legal academy attach value to the idea of economic diversity." He continued, "Schools that are willing to throw themselves into the fire to preserve racial effects act like class-based affirmative action is, if anything, a bad thing."
After the Supreme Court reaffirmed the ability of colleges to use race in admissions in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, it appeared briefly that American higher education might begin to address the remaining problem of class inequality. In 2004, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, announced a plan to widen socioeconomic diversity among its students through financial aid and admissions. Anthony Marx forged a similar plan at Amherst College, and Bowen urged colleges to provide a thumb on the scale for low-income applicants.
But while the number of low-income students at Harvard and Amherst rose, similar institutions did not for the most part follow suit. Marx told me, "At Amherst, we more than doubled low-income enrollment, which made for a more interesting educational environment for everyone and aimed to bolster mobility based on talent. Since this only increased selectivity from a broader pool and inspired record-breaking donations, I hoped our peers would follow, but their numbers never moved as significantly."
With a dearth of low-income students, discussions of campus diversity continued to focus on race. "Although no remark is more common in American public life than the observation that we don't like to talk about race, no remark ... is more false," Walter Benn Michaels, a literary and social critic at the University of Illinois at Chicago, observed in his 2006 book, The Trouble With Diversity. "In fact, we love to talk about race. And, in the university, not only do we talk about it; we write books and articles about it, we teach and take classes about it, and we arrange our admissions policies in order to take it into account."
We do so in part, he contended, to avoid talking about class, discussion of which remains largely off-limits. As a colleague remarked to me, a student who is both low-income and gay is far more likely to reveal his sexual orientation than his class origins.
This backdrop—in which baby boomers like me saw class issues eclipsed by other important dimensions of inequality—helps explain why I was so stunned by the frank discussion at Middlebury. But the dialogue there may be a small sign that the pendulum is swinging back. Indeed, it seems likely that two very different forces will drive a re-emergence of the class issue in the near future: the passionate advocacy of young people, for whom class plays an increasing role in their daily experiences; and the actions of a group of Supreme Court justices, who appear willing to begin phasing out our nation's half-century experiment with using race as a positive factor in college admissions, paving the way for considerations of class.
Today's young people have grown up in a world unlike that of their parents. Class inequality has taken on much greater salience than racial inequality. Today's youth didn't grow up seeing fire hoses being trained on peaceful civil-rights demonstrators. Instead they've grown up in a country where racism continues to exist, but where voters elected and then re-elected a black president, and where Latinos are a rising political power. And they have come of age at a time of growing economic inequality, when the advantages of economic privilege are greater than ever before. Wealthy families have always had more resources to invest in their children, but the gap in that spending between wealthy and poor families has tripled since the 1970s.
Looking at students' test scores, Sean F. Reardon, a professor at Stanford University, has found that the gap in scores between affluent and low-income students has grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double that between black and white students.
If the ability of colleges to employ race in admissions is constrained, it is likely that campus officials will turn to economic disadvantage to indirectly produce racial diversity.
Moreover, Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University, have found that socioeconomic disadvantages are far more significant in predicting SAT scores for today's students than racial
disadvantages are. On the math and verbal sections of the SAT, socioeconomic disadvantage imposes a 399-point penalty on low-income students compared with the most advantaged, while being African-American imposes a 56-point disadvantage compared with being white.
Given those realities, young upper-middle-class white students who feel uneasy about unearned fortune appear more likely to experience guilt about their growing economic advantage than about their diminishing white-skin privilege. Indeed, today's students, as a group, seem more attuned to remedying economic inequalities than racial disparities. In a 2012 poll of students at Brown University, for example, 58 percent opposed the use of race in admissions compared with 34 percent who supported it. Yet among those opposed to racial consideration, more than half supported consideration of socioeconomic status.
Likewise, in a national poll of millennials (ages 18-25) conducted by Georgetown University, participants opposed the use of racial preferences for diversity by 57 percent to 28 percent, and only 9 percent supported racial preferences to make up for past discrimination. At Princeton University, the editorial board of The Daily Princetonian, while supportive of racial considerations, urged "the university to attach more value to overcoming socioeconomic rather than racial barriers in admissions decisions. ... The board sees socioeconomic barriers in the United States as more formidable than racial ones broadly and hence a better predictor of diverse life experience to add to our community."
Across the country, new student groups have arisen to raise awareness about socioeconomic disadvantage. One organization, United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity (U/Fused), was founded in 2010 by students at Duke University, Saint Louis University, and Washington University in St. Louis, and has since expanded to 19 campuses.
One of the founders of the Duke chapter, Spencer Eldred, told me that in the years following the 2006 allegations (later withdrawn) of the rape of an African-American woman by white lacrosse players at Duke, "there was a lot of discussion of race and gender" on the campus. Student groups dedicated to civil rights and women's issues helped drive an important dialogue. But there was a "big gaping hole" around larger issues of class on campus, he said, because no group existed to raise them.
Meanwhile, at Washington University in St. Louis, a student, Chase Sackett, was concerned that among top colleges, his ranked last in Pell Grant recipients. He helped create the U/Fused chapter to commission a student survey of the socioeconomic climate on campus, which he said "got a big splash" in the student newspaper and generated a great deal of discussion. Students came to see, he said, that while "class doesn't define you, it's a part of you."
In the first few years, U/Fused chapters (disclosure: I serve on the board of advisers) have begun making modest gains in raising awareness of class issues. At Northwestern University, the chapter held a panel discussion on the challenges of achieving socioeconomic diversity and persuaded the president, Morton Schapiro, to participate. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, the group joined with the administration to create a financial-literacy program, which is now part of the required curriculum for first-year students.
Over time, U/Fused chapters across the country hope to increase socioeconomic diversity on campus, improve outcomes for low-income and working-class students, and foster dialogue on class issues. The chapters push college administrators to increase recruitment of low-income students, expand financial aid, adopt need-blind admissions, create partnerships with community colleges, drop legacy preferences in admissions, and forge partnerships with organizations such as QuestBridge and the Posse Foundation to enroll talented working-class students.
At Middlebury, the local chapter of U/Fused has its work cut out. An academically rigorous private college with 2,500 students, it ranks fourth among liberal-arts colleges (behind Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore) in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, but low on socioeconomic diversity. Middlebury has need-blind admissions, but according to the Institute for College Access & Success, only 10 percent of dependent students there in 2007-8 came from families making below $60,000 a year (the most recent data available). Meanwhile, 67 percent of dependent students did not apply for federal financial aid, despite Middlebury's hefty total cost of attendance ($55,750 in 2010-11).
The U.S. Department of Education says 40 percent of college students received Pell Grants nationally in 2010-11; at Middlebury the figure was 11 percent. Among the 11 members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference, Middlebury's Pell proportion ranked next to last (just above Colby College), and was half the share at Amherst.
Still, to its credit, Middlebury (another disclosure: My daughter is a junior there) has supported the Money at Midd program, to foster a sometimes difficult dialogue on issues of socioeconomic diversity. During my visit, my student host, Samuel Koplinka-Loehr, told me that working-class students often feel out of place amid the wealth on campus, ashamed that they don't understand the cultural references commonly employed by classmates. Students of modest means feel alone and resent the failure of classmates to acknowledge that the immense wealth found on the campus is not the norm. An administrator whose low-income family had to ration portions of food and drink when she was growing up told me that, many years later, she still feels out of place amid the luxurious surroundings on the campus. "I still can't pour myself more than half a cup of orange juice," she said.
Middlebury could have created a support group for working-class students, the type of program found on many other campuses. But Koplinka-Loehr intentionally wanted something different—an organization that promotes dialogue between working-class and wealthy students, that "makes the conversation a lot harder" but ultimately more meaningful, he explained.
Money at Midd starts most meetings with the routine that preceded my speech: Participants identify themselves and indicate how much they and their families contribute to the cost of their education. Some students squirm in their seats, Koplinka-Loehr said, but the forums provide a space where people can share their "guilt about having money or not having money."
There are risks to this approach. Asking students instead to state publicly how much their parents make could generate sympathy for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but identifying how much is contributed sometimes fosters a "conservative backlash" among full-paying students who resent their peers for being subsidized, Koplinka-Loehr said. In fact, all Middlebury students, even those who pay full tuition and fees, are subsidized; the actual amount spent annually by Middlebury is roughly $80,000 per student.
As young student activists like Koplinka-Loehr, Eldred, and Sackett agitate for paying more attention to socioeconomic issues, the cause of socioeconomic affirmative action may find an unlikely set of allies among conservative justices on the Supreme Court.
In oral arguments in October in the affirmative-action case before the court, Fisher v. University of Texas, Justice Samuel Alito Jr., of all people, raised the class issue front and center. When a lower court temporarily banned Texas from using race in admissions, the Austin flagship was able to admit more black and Latino students through economic affirmative action and a plan to automatically admit students in the top 10 percent of their high-school class than it had in the past, using race. But the university argues that it was nevertheless justified in considering race, in part because minority students admitted through the 10-percent plan were more likely "to be the first in their families to attend college." Racial preferences, the university says, are needed to admit students such as "the African-American or Hispanic child of successful professionals in Dallas," in order to play against stereotypes.
Justice Alito was incredulous: "I thought that the whole purpose of affirmative action was to help students who come from underprivileged backgrounds, but you make a very different argument." The new argument seemed to suggest that the 10-percent plan was admitting too many of the wrong class of African-American and Latino students.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing vote on the court, also seemed disturbed by Texas's argument. Following the exchange with Justice Alito, when the attorney for the university said that "we want minorities from different backgrounds," Justice Kennedy replied, "So what you're saying is that what counts is race above all." He continued that "the reason you're reaching for the privileged is so that members of that race who are privileged can be representative, and that's race."
If the ability of colleges to employ race in admissions is constrained, it is likely that campus officials will turn to economic disadvantage, and to percentage plans that disproportionately benefit poor and working-class students, as a way to indirectly produce racial diversity. As my colleague Halley Potter and I outlined in a recent report, "A Better Affirmative Action," most state universities that were banned by voter initiative from using race shifted to class. A similar change in emphasis has occurred at the K-12 level, where 80 school districts, many of which had employed racial integration plans, switched to socioeconomic integration following a 2007 Supreme Court decision clamping down on the use of race.
If colleges shift from race-based to class-based approaches, they may see a considerable influx of low-income and working-class students. At Austin, for example, 25 percent of students admitted through the percentage plan in 2011 were from families making less than $40,000 a year, compared with 10 percent admitted through the traditional discretionary admissions program (including affirmative action). One-third admitted through the percentage plan had parents lacking four-year degrees, compared with 11 percent of discretionary admits.
Fortunately, the students admitted through the percentage plan in Texas have done well academically. And new research by Stanford's Caroline Hoxby and Harvard's Christopher Avery suggests that a substantial proportion of high-scoring, low-income students do not attend selective colleges and are ripe for recruitment.
For 50 years, higher education has managed to avoid questions of class. But gaping economic disparity, changing student sentiment, and the U.S. Supreme Court seem likely to bring class back, once again, to the forefront. Having taken some modestly successful steps to include women and racial minorities, will the colleges accept the challenge?