Column | Dec. 3

A chance for a better affirmative action system

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing yet another affirmative action case from Michigan. This time the Court is considering the constitutionality of a 2006 state referendum that bans the use of racial criteria in college admissions. According to CNN, the ban, now part of the Michigan constitution, “prohibits race- and sex-based discrimination or preferential treatment in public university admission decisions.”

As in the past, the general public and the Supreme Court appear to be split ideologically over whether there remains a role for affirmative action in college admission decisions. Some think the elimination of race consideration is the best way to implement the intent behind the 14th Amendment, while others argue that race ought to be an admissions consideration in order to remedy past discrimination. One brief filed in the case even goes so far as to assert that the state ban allows for “de-facto segregation,” working on the assumption that the number of minority students admitted to Michigan’s top universities will shrink under the ban.

Valid arguments exist on both sides, and I am no constitutional law expert. Nevertheless, I’d like to propose another criterion for consideration for admissions’ affirmative-action programs: socioeconomic-based affirmative action. An affirmative-action system based on socioeconomic status would likely maintain diversity, the proposed state interest in affirmative action, while avoiding singling out people solely based on race. As proven by the continuous debate and Supreme Court action, race-based affirmative action is messy, yet a socioeconomic system side steps this controversy while providing an equally effective system to achieve the goals affirmative action sets out to do.

A socioeconomic-based system would avoid the delicate area race-based considerations create — essentially whether affirmative action is discriminatory toward one group, preferential to another or both, and which, if any, manner of considering criteria is ethical or constitutional. It’s hard to deny that students coming from a lower socioeconomic class are less likely to have access to the resources that are proven to help kids succeed. Social and economic capital, from library books to parents able to help with homework to SAT tutors, all assist students to succeed and gain admittance to top universities. Students with greater financial means, no matter what their race, have greater access to all these resources to better meet college criteria. On the other hand, students who do not have access to the same resources, who might not be able to have an SAT tutor or take the SAT two or three times, might not appear quite as “smart” on paper. Yet in reality, with the same tools, these students might have been just as, if not more, impressive to college admissions staff. This is true no matter the race of the student. Though there might still be past wrongs that ought to be righted, today there is a clearer disadvantage among students due to socioeconomic status than there necessarily is based solely on race.

Moreover, given the economic and racial realities of the nation’s current makeup, it is likely that considering socioeconomic status instead of race will still maintain the diverse college community that the state is striving to achieve. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, at the moment the trend is the opposite; elite schools are becoming more white and more affluent. Unfortunately, statistics show that African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to grow up in areas of poverty than their white peers. Thus, by specially considering socioeconomic status, colleges will de facto include a greater percentage of minority students, creating a racially and economically diverse community.

A system like this is currently used at the University of Colorado at Boulder. According to an article in The Atlantic, Matthew Gaertner, a research scientist at the Center for College and Career Success who helped the CU-Boulder admissions office devise its new framework, attempted to create “a class-based affirmative-action framework for CU-Boulder that would take into account resources available to a child at home and in high school.” On one side he considers the disadvantages one’s socioeconomic situation creates, like availability of resources or the likelihood that the applicant will enroll in college at all given his socioeconomic status. He also weighs the “overachievement index,” which measures whether an applicant’s grades and test scores exceed the scores usually achieved by students of his socioeconomic status. In a system like this, the advantages or disadvantages of one’s economic situation is part of the overall consideration of the applicant in order to place everyone, no matter one’s race, on a fairer playing field.

Since its first affirmative action decision in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court just heard the seventh case on the issue this past October, the fourth within the decade. This statistic itself demonstrates how controversial the affirmative action debate is. If the Supreme Court were to uphold Michigan’s law as constitutional, this would allow any state to ban race-based affirmative action. Yet, even so, socioeconomic affirmative action is an effective solution to such a ban on a race-based system. Implementation of a socioeconomic, class-based system will fairly and constitutionally help universities become even more diverse than they currently are.

Marni Morse is a freshman from Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mlmorse@princeton.edu.

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