The University of Virginia, one of the nation’s top public universities, enrolls a strikingly wealthy group of students: Less than 15 percent of recent students at UVA came from families with income low enough to qualify for Pell Grants, the largest federal financial aid help program .
The same is true at some other public universities, including Auburn, Georgia Tech and William & Mary. It also applies at a larger group of elite private colleges, including Bates, Brown, Georgetown, Oberlin, Tulane and Wake Forest. The failure is so extreme at some colleges that more students come from the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom 60 percent, one academic study found.
It is worth remembering that this pattern existed despite affirmative action. Almost every college with an affluent enrollment has historically used race-based admissions policies. These policies often succeeded in producing racial diversity without producing as much economic diversity.
After the Supreme Court’s decision last week banning race-based affirmative action, much of the commentary has focused on how admissions officers could use economic data, such as household income or wealth, to ensure continued racial diversity. And whether they figure out how to do that matters (as I described earlier).
But racial diversity is not the only form of diversity that matters. Economic diversity matters in its own right: The lack of low-income students at many elite colleges is a sign that educational opportunity has been limited for Americans of all races. To put it another way, economic factors like household wealth are not valuable just because they are a potential proxy for race; they are also a remarkable measure of disadvantage in their own right.
As colleges renew their admissions policies to respond to the court’s decision, there will be two different questions worth asking: Can the new system do? too like the old one with the enrollment of Black, Hispanic and Native students? And can it do better on enrollment of lower income students? So far, the public discussion has tended to ignore that second question.
The F&M model
Creating more economically diverse selective campuses is both difficult and possible.
It’s difficult because almost every aspect of the admissions system favors wealthy applicants. They attend better high schools. They get help with their essays from their highly educated parents. They know how to work the system by choosing character-building extracurricular activities and taking standardized tests repeatedly. In many cases — if the applicants are athletes or the children of alumni, organ donors or faculty members — they benefit from their own version of affirmative action.
However, 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 multi-billion dollar (such as Amherst, Harvard, Princeton, Swarthmore and Yale). The list also includes colleges with less resources – such as Franklin & Marshall, Macalaster, Vassar and Wooster – who had to make tough choices to find the money to increase their scholarship budgets. Essentially, 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 have received less editing from adults. The student’s summer activity may have been work in his own poor neighborhood – rather than a social justice trip to a poor area abroad.
Many of these students have tremendous promise. By admitting them, an elite college can change the trajectories of entire families. A college dominated by wealthy students, by contrast, fails to function as the engine of opportunity that it could be.
I am not suggesting that economic diversity is an adequate substitute for racial diversity. The United States has a specific history of racial discrimination, especially against blacks and Native Americans, which continues to limit opportunities for today’s teenagers. The Supreme Court ruling that banned race-based affirmative action sometimes 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 often excluded class from their definition of diversity. They enrolled students of every race and religion, from every continent and American region, without much concern for 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 gave Democrats an opportunity to talk about class and improve their elitist image. Jonathan Weisman of The Times asks, “Will the party pivot?”
“Affirmative action, in my opinion, was doomed,” Jay Caspian Kang writes in The New Yorkerfocusing on how the system treated Asian Americans.
This could be an opportunity to improve university admissions, writes Times Opinion. Seven experts share how they would overhaul the system.
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