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Now it’s time for colleges that use race-conscious admissions to begin thinking creatively about new ways to promote diversity. While the Supreme Court is the final word on whether racial preferences can be used to achieve racial diversity, colleges have the final word on whether they adopt other means to become racially and economically diverse.
As President Biden’s solicitor general, Elizabeth B. Prelogar, noted, “there are nine states … that have barred the use of race in college admissions, and many of the universities and colleges in those states have been able still to achieve enrollment of diverse student bodies.” She continued: “I think that it’s incumbent on every college and university around the nation to study from and learn from those examples.”
Those examples include institutions in California, a state that banned the consideration of race after a 1996 ballot measure passed. Initially Black and Hispanic admissions plummeted at the most selective universities there, but concentrated work, including efforts to improve socioeconomic diversity and the community-college transfer process, helped reverse the trend. In 2020 the University of California at Berkeley admitted “the most ethnically diverse freshman admitted class in more than 30 years.” In 2021 the University of California at Los Angeles admitted the highest proportion of underrepresented-minority students “in over 30 years.” White students constitute just 26 percent of undergraduates at UCLA and just 20 percent at Berkeley. Similarly, at the University of Washington, which has been barred from using race since 1999, its former president Richard L. McCormick says racial diversity fell initially, but after five years, “the racial and ethnic diversity of the UW’s first-year class had returned to its pre-1999 levels.”
Looking to a future in which racial preferences are banned, some Supreme Court justices asked whether race-neutral alternatives to producing racial diversity (such as admitting the top 10 percent of a state’s high-school graduates) would themselves be illegal if racial diversity was a motivation. Here the answer from Patrick Strawbridge, the lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions, or SFFA, was reassuring. While SFFA would probably oppose “a pure proxy for race” such as a preference for the descendants of slaves, other programs — such as socioeconomic preferences or geographic preferences — would be entirely legal because there is a “race-neutral justification” for adopting those plans, Strawbridge said. “If the only reason to do it is through the narrow lens of race and there is no other race-neutral justification … that’s the only scenario where it would create problems.” The key is that new plans should be independently justified as part of a fair admissions process.
At the K-12 level, socioeconomic approaches to school integration have proved legally viable. The conservative Pacific Legal Foundation dropped a lawsuit in Hartford, Conn., in 2020, for example, when the state switched from race to socioeconomic status as a basis for student assignment.
Below are 10 research-backed ideas that can improve diversity. Any one practice is unlikely to do the trick by itself, but taken together, simulations using data from actual applicants (which one of us, Kahlenberg, conducted as an expert witness for SFFA) suggest they can produce robust levels of racial and socioeconomic diversity.
1. Jettison legacy preferences. Children of alumni are disproportionately white and wealthy. Colleges like to dangle legacy preferences in front of alumni to shake them down for donations, but research suggests the policies are not a particularly effective fund-raising tool. Nevertheless, at many institutions, legacy status continues to provide a big admissions boost to an already advantaged group. Harvard’s internal analysis found that being a legacy increases a student’s chance of admissions there by 40 percentage points. At UNC, the freshman class has more legacy students than first-generation students.
2. End preferences for faculty children. At Harvard, the litigation showed, the children of faculty and staff members get a significant bump in admissions — larger than that given to Hispanic, disadvantaged, or first-generation students. One of Harvard’s expert witnesses, Ruth J. Simmons, claimed that there are “strong reasons” to employ preferences for the children of faculty members as a way to retain talent, but she provided no evidence.
3. Eliminate early admissions. Applying early to college provides a significant boost in the chances of admissions, and the practice disproportionately benefits white and wealthy applicants. For that very reason, Harvard abandoned the practice in 2006. But when other colleges did not follow suit, Harvard reinstated early admission in 2011.
4. Give a significant boost in admissions to low-income and first-generation students. Class matters a lot in American society. Research by Anthony P. Carnevale and his colleagues at Georgetown University found that the most socioeconomically disadvantaged students — many of them Black or Hispanic — score 399 points lower on the SAT, on average, than do the most socioeconomically advantaged students. Colleges provide only a modest boost in admissions today for economically disadvantaged students, a leg up that is smaller than preferences for the wealthy.
5. Give a further boost to students who grew up in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Researchers have long found that students from disadvantaged neighborhoods face an extra obstacle. In America, because of housing discrimination, neighborhoods are highly segregated by race. In fact, middle-class Black families tend to live in higher-poverty neighborhoods than do low-income whites. Colleges should use a tool, created by the College Board, that can provide information about an applicant’s neighborhood and school environment to help identify strivers who have overcome hurdles.
6. Give a further preference to students with low family wealth. Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology at Princeton, has found that wealth (accumulated assets) is a powerful indicator of opportunity in America. Because of America’s history of slavery, segregation, and redlining, the racial wealth gap is enormous. In fact, Black households headed by a person with a bachelor’s degree have just two-thirds of the wealth, on average, of white households headed by a person who lacks even a high-school diploma. Institutions like UCLA’s law school have used wealth in admissions both as a matter of fairness and as a way to increase racial diversity.
7. Seek geographic diversity. Texas, California, and Florida all have adopted “percentage plans” that give favorable consideration to top students from every high school in the state as a means of diversifying student bodies without using race. Selective colleges that have a national pool of applicants can also prioritize geographic diversity as a way of increasing racial and economic diversity, as Danielle Allen, a university professor at Harvard, has suggested.
8. Increase community-college transfers. Over the years, several top colleges have adopted policies to make it easier for high-achieving community-college students to transfer. By contrast, Harvard admitted only two such students over a six-year period. Given the rich racial and economic diversity found at community colleges, admitting more transfer students is a promising way for selective colleges to achieve diversity.
9. Expand recruitment. Research by Caroline M. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford, and Christopher N. Avery, a professor of public policy at Harvard, has found that of the nation’s 35,000 high-achieving low-income students, only one-third apply to one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges. Institutions should target those students, with a special emphasis on the nation’s 2,000 Black and 2,700 Hispanic very-high-achieving low-income students.
10. Increase financial aid. This is a politically popular move. As The Washington Post found in a recent poll, Americans don’t like racial preferences, but they also don’t want reductions in college diversity. That’s why, when racial preferences ended in red states like Texas and Florida, big increases in student aid followed, as conservative governors recognized they couldn’t simply give up on diversity altogether.
The good news is that efforts to find new ways to create diversity are much more popular than using race in deciding who gets in. The biggest legislative accomplishment of the progressive movement since Lyndon Johnson is the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which is essentially a form of class-based affirmative action in health care. The ACA does not provide favorable treatment, as Harvard’s and UNC’s affirmative-action programs do, mostly to well-off people of color, or exclude low-income white and Asian people from the policy’s benefits. Obamacare provides its largest subsidies to low-income and working-class people of all races, which helps explain its political potency.
If college leaders fail to come up with good alternative paths to diversity, they will be guilty of betraying Black and Hispanic Americans. But if they act, they can usher in a new era for selective higher education in which the final barrier — class disadvantage — begins to fall. And just as the addition of women and people of color in an earlier era enhanced higher education, so will the inclusion of a new multiracial cohort of low-income and working-class students.