Supreme Court has spoken on affirmative action. Now, colleges should boost income diversity

If America is to live up to its promise as the land of opportunity for all, colleges and universities must continue working to increase income diversity among their students in the wake of a Supreme Court decision rejecting a challenge to race-conscious affirmative action in admissions at the University of Texas at Austin.

As the Supreme Court said in its decision Thursday, “diversity takes many forms. Formalistic racial classifications may sometimes fail to capture diver­sity in all of its dimensions and, when used in a divisive manner, could undermine the educational benefits the University values."

No one knows if the narrowly drawn Supreme Court decision will apply to race-conscious affirmative action as practiced at other colleges. Should any of those programs be overturned in the future, efforts to increase the number of low-income students at colleges will become even more important than they are now in preserving student diversity, as has been shown in states that earlier banned race-based affirmative action.

A new issue brief released Friday by the Cooke Foundation lists steps that selective colleges and universities should take to open their doors wider to outstanding students from families with modest incomes. This builds on the findings of a Cooke Foundation study published earlier this year.

The earlier study pointed out that a mere 3 percent of students at America’s most selective college and universities come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes, while 72 percent come from the 25 percent of families with the highest incomes.

The report called for colleges to address unfair and unjustified obstacles that now limit college admissions of academically qualified low-income students.

We found that doing this can be as effective as race-conscious affirmative action programs in increasing minority enrollment while simultaneously opening these schools to low-income students.

This is because while the white poverty rate in the U.S. was just 10 percent in 2013, the black and Hispanic poverty rates were more than twice as high – 24 percent for Hispanics and 26 percent for African-Americans, according to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office.

Students of color have increased their numbers dramatically at colleges and universities as the result of affirmative action programs.

In 1965, a mere 5 percent of undergraduate college and university students were African-American. But that percentage tripled to reach 15 percent by 2012, which is roughly comparable to the national population. The percentage of Hispanic students rose as well, both because of affirmative action and the increase in the overall Hispanic population, going from just 4 percent in 1976 to 15 percent in 2012.

Despite that welcome progress, the Census Bureau reported in March that while 36 percent of non-Hispanic white adults had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 22 percent of black and 15 percent of Hispanic adults held four-year degrees. We need to continue working to reduce that gap.

But while the college enrollment gap between racial and ethnic groups has been shrinking, the income gap dividing those who attend college from those who do not has been growing. This is because students who go to colleges and universities are largely middle class or wealthy. Low-income students of all races and ethnicities still face big financial and other obstacles keeping them out of college.

A 2014 White House report titled “Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students” states: “While half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, just 1 in 10 people from low-income families do.” Something is very wrong with a system that gives sons and daughters born into wealthy families a college graduation rate five times higher than the children of low-income families.

What to do?

The Cooke Foundation reports mentioned above recommend a series of actions. These include limiting the admissions preference given to the children of alumni (the so-called legacy preference), because most low-income students do not have college-educated parents. And the reports recommend rolling back the use of early admissions, which are largely unavailable to low-income students who cannot commit going to a school until they know the size of their financial aid package.

The reports also recommend that colleges roll back the athletic admissions preference, because at elite colleges this preference often goes to students playing sports that very few low-income and minority students play – such as crew, water polo, squash and fencing.

Some of the top colleges in the nation have shown they can admit increased numbers of low-income students – among them many students of color – without lowering their standards.

Last year the Cooke Foundation awarded the $1 million Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence to Vassar College for its excellent record of admitting, supporting and graduating outstanding low-income students. In May the 2016 prize went to Amherst College. Both have maintained very high standards while having an enrollment that is almost 25 percent low-income students.

These two colleges and others that have removed many barriers keeping out low-income students are leaders in the campaign to bring equal educational opportunity to every student in our diverse nation. More higher education institutions should follow their example.