The Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case has increased the scrutiny of the college admissions process. Currently, Princeton, like the University of Texas, has a race-based affirmative action policy, giving extra weight to race in the admissions decision. Though factors like geography and socioeconomic class are also weighed, given the extensive statistics available on the student body’s racial breakdown and the uneven progress toward racial rather than socioeconomic diversity, no factors are weighed as strongly as race. Because there is academic value in a diverse student body, we urge the University to attach more value to overcoming socioeconomic rather than racial barriers in admissions decisions.
For the richest academic experience, our student body ought to consist of a wide range of life experiences. 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. This shift would require the admissions committee to view applicants’ financial information provided to the financial aid office. Though some may be concerned that this would jeopardize Princeton’s need-blind policy that accepts students regardless of financial need, it in fact supports the spirit behind the policy, as an applicant’s need could not hinder his or her chances at admission, only help.
Further, while the University has made strides in increasing racial diversity, our student body is still dominated by the highest income levels, limiting our exposure to “the other.” Currently, the University is more transparent in reporting the student body’s racial diversity than socioeconomic diversity. In measuring the number of “low-income” students, the University defines a student as low-income if his or her family’s annual earnings are under $60,000, almost double the federal definition of $33,000. While we acknowledge that income data is only available for students applying for aid, we call on the University to release as much information as possible on the socioeconomic breakdown of our student body and to reconsider their definitions. Only when the numbers are out there can we earnestly work toward our goal of diversity.
We must, however, emphasize that racial barriers are still real and deserve consideration. Overcoming racial barriers is a different challenge than overcoming socioeconomic ones. While a strong correlation exists between race and socioeconomic status, the two are not the same nor are the barriers they create. Switching to solely class-based affirmative action would reduce racial diversity, likely past desirable levels. Thus, while socioeconomic diversity should be our priority, underrepresented minorities should continue to receive extra attention. This balance is described in a recent New York Times editorial calling on universities to view class and race as “compliments” rather than “alternatives” for a “truly diverse campus.” We agree, but given the University’s lopsided success in racial diversity and failure in socioeconomic diversity, a shift in focus is necessary.
Affirmative action — on any grounds — no longer has a place in college admissions. The policy emerged in 1961 to combat widespread discrimination. Now, over half a century removed from that time, the rationale for affirmative action has shifted from redressing and fighting an evident injustice to achieving racial and socioeconomic diversity that doesn’t necessarily translate into the diversity that creates an enriching academic environment. The majority opinion of the Board takes the reasoning a step further, suggesting that affirmative action also serve as a means for actively promoting the welfare of the disadvantaged. Both justifications are flawed.
A 2004 study published in the “Stanford Law Review” demonstrated that affirmative action in American law schools negatively impacted those whom it was supposed to benefit. The study concluded that affirmative action places students in schools for which they are ill-prepared, and therefore they are unlikely to succeed. Additionally, a 2011 investigation by the National Association of Scholars discredited the University of Michigan’s report asserting demographic diversity was directly related to beneficial educational outcomes.
Intellectual diversity is likely to create an ideal academic environment. To suggest that racial or socioeconomic diversity provides intellectual diversity is to reaffirm the stereotype that people think based on traits such as race, gender or — as the majority opinion prefers — socioeconomic status. This is unfair. It questions the capacity for freedom of thought that the University values. Thus, all affirmative action should be eliminated and the weight given to application essays increased. After all, student writing more clearly showcases true diversity of thought and intellectual perspective than a mere check in a box next to a race or income bracket.
Zach Horton ’15