Affirmative action is under assault. In the 48 years since President Richard Nixon instituted its present form of racial preferences, lower-tier colleges have abandoned it, the Supreme Court has rolled back its policies, and voters in eight states have banned the use of race in admissions for public colleges.
This has posed a problem for colleges wanting to preserve diversity in their student bodies. As a result, schools are switching to class-based affirmative action, the practice of giving preference to applicants of lower socioeconomic status, rather than race-based affirmative action. Although these schools have pursued this course in the names of equity and social justice, their policies are misguided and will have disastrous consequences for students from low-income families.
Affirmative action is a policy that creates an illusion of fairness without actually addressing the root causes of inequality. Admissions preferences may increase the number of low-income students, but it will not help them pay for college's substantial cost or adapt to a new environment for which they are not academically prepared. If society is truly committed to creating equal opportunity for all Americans, it needs to abandon all policies that provide preferences to applicants based upon their background and craft public policy that fights the root causes of inequality.
The Boston Globe recently analyzed the costs and student debt levels of Massachusetts’ colleges. Many of these schools have been at the forefront of increasing low-income representation in their student bodies to promote diversity; however, this policy change has produced unintended results.
Sixty-five percent of the state’s colleges have a net price — the amount paid after financial aid — above the national average of $20,412 for families making $30,000 or less annually. This means that a low-income student will attend a school whose tuition bill could consume over 70 percent of a family’s income. Families won’t devote all of their money to cover college costs, so students are forced to take out loans. Although low-income students usually have the smallest amounts of college debt, they are the most likely to default.
Even outside of Massachusetts, the prospects are grim for low-income students. In 2012, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco reported that families living in the lowest economic quintile in western states would have to use at least 70 percent of their income to cover college costs after financial aid. Student debt is lowest in the West, so it is likely that the situation is comparable or worse for low-income families in the rest of the country.
Supporters of class-based affirmative action will cite statistics showing how people with a bachelor's degree have higher lifetime earnings than those with a lower level of education. But not all college degrees are created equal. As the Boston Globe showed in its report, many graduates of middle and lower-tier colleges have starting salaries under $35,000 per year. Further, the Brookings Institution found that the income gain from earning a bachelor's degree is less for a low-income student than for someone from the middle or upper classes.
These problems are exacerbated by the fact that low-income students drop out of college at high rates. The Pell Institute said that over 40 percent of college students coming from families making less than $30,000 per year dropped out. For first generation low-income students, only 11 percent earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Consequently, many of them drop out of school with debt and without a degree to get a job.
This doesn’t happen because low-income students are less intelligent than higher income students. As a U.S. Department of Education report noted, “Inadequate academic preparation is the key factor in lack of college success.” This causes a mismatch where students attend colleges for which they are unprepared. Rather than lower the standards of admission to attract low-income students, we should be raising them up to the same level as their peers by the time they apply to college.
Like I wrote last month about race-based admissions policies, class-based affirmative action doesn’t solve the problems that deny low-income Americans equal opportunity. It doesn’t address the stagnation of wages, inability to regularly provide food, increasing costs of college, or deterioration in the quality of public education. Adopting this new form of affirmative action would result in a large influx of low-income students into colleges who would then struggle to keep pace with their better-prepared peers while trying to pay substantial bills. Their dropout and debt default rates would be astronomical.
Princeton is renowned for its generous financial aid package that has allowed low-income students to attend at little cost, and for programs like the Freshman Scholars Institute and the Scholars Institute Fellows Program that help them adjust to college life. But few colleges outside of the Ivy League have the financial or institutional resources to support such students.
Again, the only way to provide equal opportunity for low-income Americans is to adopt an identity-blind meritocracy where society fights the causes of poverty. By ignoring both race and class in college admissions, student diversity in colleges will fall for the short-term. But schools will become more diverse in the long-term if the country devotes itself toward creating equal opportunity for all Americans through market and government-based programs.
Feel-good policies like affirmative action don’t work. We must create a society where individuals advance to the best of their abilities and are not hindered by their identity and economic status.
Liam O’Connor is a sophomore from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.