A call for economic rather than race-based affirmative action in the college admissions process

Affirmative action has once again become a media buzz word in the last few weeks. Recently, the Supreme Court upheld the 2006 Michigan constitutional amendment that bans consideration of race in university and college admissions. As of now, seven states, including Michigan, have placed bans on affirmative action.

Affirmative Action came about in 1961 when President Kennedy instituted the Executive Order “to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” The order, meant to fix racial differences, may have inadvertently deepened them once it was applied to the college admission process.

There is no doubt that diversity is instrumental to a successful college experience. College is a chance to meet new people who come from different backgrounds, whether those backgrounds are racial, ethnic, or economic. Thus, colleges’ pursuing racial diversity is a worthy goal. But admitting students solely because of race is unjust. And it risks cultivating racial resentment. If a student is rejected solely because of race, that student will understandably hold animosity. There needs to be a new system of affirmative action that continues to pursue diversity, without the racial preferences: one that is heedful of racial and ethnic diversity, but more justly confronts class inequality in higher education.

As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in 1961, “While [African Americans] form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill.” An overwhelming 86% of African Americans at selective colleges were either upper or middle class, according to research from Derek Bok and William Bowen for the Century Foundation. Race-based admission aimed to offset the disadvantages of being lower class, but it now correlates lower class and race too strongly. In a 2011 analysis of the test score gap, Stanford professor Sean Reardon found that, “whereas the black/white test score gap used to be about twice as large as the rich/poor gap [fifty years ago], today, the income gap is about twice as large as the race gap” (Century Foundation). Colleges and universities can no longer ignore these changes. Race does not predict one’s future success, but socioeconomic standing may. Race-based affirmative action sought to compensate for the economic disadvantages associated with African Americans, because in 1961, African Americans were disproportionately more poor than white peers. Yet, in 2014, race is not as correlated to a low socioeconomic position as it once was, and race no longer defines one’s economic position.

As an incoming freshman at Boston College in the fall, I have gone through the tedious, arduous college process. I have struggled through four years of academic challenges. I have participated in clubs and succeeded in sports. I’ve tried my best these past years to market myself as a knowledgeable and capable college student. All of these factors are in my control; however, my race and my socioeconomic standing are not. I know that my socioeconomic standing has contributed to my success. Thus, we must change to income-based affirmative action and, as a result, diversity will follow. Perhaps colleges and universities could partner with disadvantaged schools or expand financial aid programs to support those students who are in need. As Chief Justice Roberts famously said in the 2007 Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, “the way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating based on race.”

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