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Social Class Is Not About Only Race

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Social Class Is Not About Only Race

The University of Virginia, one of the country’s top public universities, enrolls a strikingly affluent group of students: Less than 15 percent of recent undergraduates at UVA have come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for Pell Grants, the largest federal financial aid program.

The same is true at some other public universities, including Auburn, Georgia Tech and William & Mary. It is also true at a larger group of elite private colleges, including Bates, Brown, Georgetown, Oberlin, Tulane and Wake Forest. The skew is so extreme at some colleges that more undergraduates come from the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom 60 percent, one academic study found.

It’s worth remembering that this pattern has existed despite affirmative action. Nearly every college with an affluent enrollment has historically used race-based admissions policies. Those policies often succeeded at producing racial diversity without producing as much economic diversity.

After the Supreme Court decision last week banning race-based affirmative action, much of the commentary has focused on how admissions officers might use economic data, like household income or wealth, to ensure continued racial diversity. And whether they figure out how to do so is important (as I’ve previously covered).

But racial diversity is not the only form of diversity that matters. Economic diversity matters for its own sake: The dearth of lower-income students at many elite colleges is a sign that educational opportunity has been constrained for Americans of all races. To put it another way, economic factors like household wealth are not valuable merely because they are a potential proxy for race; they are also a telling measure of disadvantage in their own right.

As colleges revamp their admissions policies to respond to the court’s decision, there will be two different questions worth asking: Can the new system do as well as the old one at enrolling Black, Hispanic and Native students? And can it do better at enrolling lower-income students? So far, the public discussion has tended to ignore that second question.

Creating more economically diverse selective campuses is both difficult and possible.

It is difficult because nearly every aspect of the admissions system favors affluent applicants. They attend better high schools. They receive help on their essays from their highly educated parents. They know how to work the system by choosing character-building extracurricular activities and taking standardized tests multiple times. In many cases — if the applicants are athletes or the children of alumni, donors or faculty members — they benefit from their own version of affirmative action.

Nonetheless, some colleges have recently shown that it is possible to enroll and graduate more middle- and low-income students.

These newly diverse colleges include several with multibillion-dollar endowments (like Amherst, Harvard, Princeton, Swarthmore and Yale). The list also includes colleges with fewer resources — like Franklin & Marshall, Macalaster, Vassar and Wooster — which have had to make tough choices to find the money to increase their scholarship budgets. Crucially, these campuses have not sacrificed one form of diversity for another: They also tend to be racially diverse.

Admissions officers at such colleges have recognized that talented students from humble backgrounds usually don’t look as polished. Their essays may be less impressive — perhaps because they received less editing from adults. The student’s summer activity may have been a job in her own impoverished neighborhood — rather than a social justice trip to an impoverished area overseas.

Many of these students have tremendous promise. By admitting them, an elite college can change the trajectories of entire families. A college dominated by affluent students, by contrast, is failing to serve as the engine of opportunity that it could be.

I’m not suggesting that economic diversity is an adequate replacement for racial diversity. The United States has a specific history of racial discrimination, especially against Black and Native Americans, that continues to restrict opportunities for today’s teenagers. The Supreme Court ruling that banned race-based affirmative action at times seemed to wish away this history, imagining that the country had moved beyond racism. In truth, students of color, at every income level, face challenges that white students do not.

But many of the people who run elite colleges have had their own blind spot in recent decades. They have often excluded class from their definition of diversity. They enrolled students of every race and religion, from every continent and U.S. region, without worrying much about the economic privilege that many of those students shared.

Now that colleges are legally required to change their approach, they have a new opportunity to broaden their definition of diversity.

  • The Supreme Court’s decisions on affirmative action and student debt have handed Democrats an opportunity to talk about class and improve their elitist image. The Times’s Jonathan Weisman asks, “Will the party pivot?”

  • “Affirmative action, in my view, was doomed,” Jay Caspian Kang writes in The New Yorker, focusing on how the system treated Asian Americans.

  • This could be an opportunity to improve college admissions, Times Opinion writes. Seven experts share how they would overhaul the system.

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