Colleges should use affirmative action—for needs, not race

You can pay for SAT prep. You can pay for someone to write a college application essay. You can pay a private school to fill a high-school transcript with AP courses.

And, if you’re willing to take the risk, you can even pay someone else to take your standardized tests for you.

The bottom line: money helps when it comes to college admissions. For decades, colleges and universities claimed to be remedying that fact by implementing race-conscious admission practices.

But last week a pivotal Supreme Court decision brought against Harvard University determined the practice runs afoul of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protections Clause.

As schools like Harvard lament their inability to foster diversity on campus without race-based affirmative action, they’re ignoring a blatantly obvious alternative: wealth-based affirmative action. Now that skin color can’t be a consideration in admissions, bank balance should become one.

It’s a solution that would help diversify campuses socioeconomically and, by proxy, racially, considering America’s vast racial wealth disparities.

According to John Jay College professor Evan Mandery’s book “Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us,” the average family income of Harvard students is $505,000.

Anti-affirmative action protesters in front of the Supreme Court
Race-based affirmative action was overruled by the Supreme Court last month after Asian students sued Harvard for systemically discriminating against them.

"Poison Ivy" cover
In “Poison Ivy,” professor Evan Mandery makes the case that elite higher education is tearing America apart.

More Harvard students are in the top 1% of family income than the bottom 50%. Worse yet, as many hale from the top one-tenth of 1% as from the bottom 20, according to analysis by economists Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of data from the Harvard Crimson’s survey of the class of 2017.

And it’s not just white students who are throwing the numbers off. Some 71 percent of black, Hispanic and Native American students at Harvard are within the top fifth richest members of their respective racial group, according to Chetty and Friedman’s analysis of millions of tuition and tax records.

No matter how you slice it, it’s clear that Harvard’s student body isn’t even remotely reflective of the country at large.

And, considering that the university’s acceptance rate is a meager 3.4% and they can afford to fill their classes twice over with high school valedictorians, admissions officers really do have the power to tip the scales with wealth-based affirmative action.

Harvard University campus
At Harvard University, class diversity is sorely lacking, with more students in the top 1% than the bottom 50% of family income.

It’s a system that’s proven to work for students of all backgrounds. 

After California outlawed race-based affirmative action in 1996, UCLA Law School implemented a wealth-conscious admissions process. Analysis of their admissions data revealed that Hispanic students were twice as likely to be accepted and black students eleven times as likely as they otherwise would have been.

It’s a just, effective and obvious alternative. But colleges aren’t leaning in for one simple reason: money talks. Schools know that the families of wealthy students are far more likely to line their pockets with donations.

Two smiling students opening college acceptance letters
Wealth-based affirmative action helped UCLA’s law school diversify its student body without practicing race-conscious admissions.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

In fact, analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, even though Harvard University is sitting on a $50 billion endowment, children of donors were seven times more likely to get in than a typical applicant.

It’s essentially affirmative action for rich kids — and it’s taking spots from the applicants who truly pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.

Whether they couldn’t afford the cost of a tutor, worked a job during high school or cared for a sick relative, under-resourced kids who prove themselves should be celebrated.

Four diverse students on a lawn talking
Colleges should be promoting diversity of all kinds — including class diversity — in order to make its student body more reflective of the country as a whole.

And, whether they’re from the inner city or Appalachia, their skin color should be secondary to their contextual excellence.

A college degree was long hailed as a vehicle for class mobility. But elite colleges are betraying that ideal by churning out generation after generation of wealthy, connected kids on a nepotistic factory line.

This Supreme Court decision offers an opportunity for schools to reconsider that process.

What should be an easy question seems sadly all too hard for colleges to answer. What matters more: dollars or diversity?

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