There's More to Diversity Than Race

The Supreme Court’s decisions effectively upholding affirmative action (search) will be analyzed for months and impact college admissions for decades. But it really won't matter who colleges admit if only the rich can afford to attend.

Pundits have already jumped on this issue, arguing that any preferences should be based on socio-economic disadvantage, not skin color. But there's a financial hurdle standing between being admitted and being able to pay the tuition bill.

The average annual cost for tuition and housing for a private university in 2003 topped $27,000. College tuition (search) increases on average 7-8 percent a year, historically outpacing general inflation. In 18 years, when my daughter is ready for college, the four-year bill could hit $400,000!

Colleges and financial aid (search) resources try to soften this sticker shock by claiming that financial aid awards are at an all-time high -- $90 billion this year -- and that 75 percent of students at private universities receive at least some aid. Reportedly, the financial aid qualifying criteria has been reformed so that middle-class families are not shut out, and a buyer backlash led to some schools freezing, slowing or even reducing tuition.

But most aid is provided by the federal government, not the universities, and is awarded in the form of student loans (search) that send graduates into the world heavy with debt. Another chunk comes from work-study jobs (search), also federally funded, which would be fine if the bursar's office would actually wait for you to earn that portion of your bill. But they want their money up front, and if your aid award has calculated several thousand dollars from work-study, you've got a problem.

Students also aren't warned up front that dependence on big portions of aid can directly impact the quality of their educational experience -- maxing out on loans as an undergrad can kill dreams of law or medical school; some aid requires students to complete eight consecutive full-time semesters. Taking a semester off or dropping to part-time status, regardless of your reasons, can jeopardize your entire package.

If you don't think that the price of college directly impacts the "diversity" of the student body, do some research into financial aid and college costs and notice the polite recommendation touting the affordability of public colleges. Many -- probably most -- of these schools offer superior educations, but why should only the very rich and the very disadvantaged have access to the Ivy League (search), and how does that type of socio-economic segregation foster diverse campus environments?

The pricey, private university I attended was as racially and ethnically diverse as it possibly could be, but it was no surprise to me that by the time I graduated, I had subconsciously gravitated toward a group of friends with blue-collar (search) backgrounds like mine. I was once told by a fellow student that by accepting financial aid (search) I was robbing a minority student of his or her chance at college. Because I was white and not likely to ever be discriminated against on the basis of race, I had a better chance of succeeding without a degree than a minority person, she argued.

Classmates like this (who paid her tuition with her parents' credit card) were great champions of the poor as long as the poor fit their image of what poor was supposed to be. They were all for the cause of the working man as long as they didn’t have to speak directly with the dorm maintenance crew. The political correctness (search) gripping campuses at that time did not extend to prejudices based on socio-economic class (search).

A few weeks ago, I was setting up a college fund (search) for my infant daughter. As the banker explained the mind-boggling sum of money I'd have to save every month to hit that $400,000 goal, I commented on the quality of my town’s public schools -- thank goodness no private prep school worries -- and joked that a degree from a "less expensive" ($200,000) state college wouldn't exactly brand my daughter a failure.

Just then, a man joined our conversation. He apologized for interrupting but had to stop me from making such grievous errors about my child's future. He heard people like me making these rationalizations all the time, and he was on a personal mission to correct us. No offense, but he was a Princeton and Yale-educated doctor, a prep school grad on his alma mater's recruiting board, and he knew betterPublic school? A state college? Why don't you just sit the kid in front of the TV with a bag of chips?

This man was about my age and African American (search). One day, my daughter may very well be competing against his son or daughter for college admissions. The Supreme Court (search) says that because one is black and one is white, the wealthy daughter of an Ivy League doctor will deserve special consideration over the middle-class, public school-educated daughter of a journalist and a truck driver.

But according to the Supreme Court, access to education is only one goal of affirmative action. Equally important is ensuring that all students live and learn in a diverse campus environment (search). College is indeed the first opportunity many people have to be exposed to different heritages, faiths and cultures; I don't think the value of that experience can be overestimated.  But my experience has taught me that it is as important for people to be exposed to those of different social and economic backgrounds as those with different skin colors. Whatever this doctor's experience of "diversity" at Princeton and Yale, he certainly didn't know many people for whom the education he was recommending was financially impossible.

I don't want any special considerations for my daughter. I would rather have her rejected from college than be labeled disadvantaged in any way. But if the tuition bill -- not her academic achievements or talents -- determines where my daughter can attend college, if the cost excludes her from opportunities she would have had otherwise, this noble ideal of “diversity” is empty. If universities genuinely believe in the educational merits of a "diverse" student body, they should use their resources to help all legitimately deserving students afford it.

I believe my kid's education is my responsibility. But why does it have to cost so much? My salary certainly isn't going to rise two times the rate of inflation. Where is all the money going anyway? It's not that they can't afford it; visit any campus and you’ll see millions of dollars being spent on superfluous projects and cushy faculty amenities. My university slashed aid awards while reinventing itself into a major real estate developer -- while most of the actual classroom facilities and dorms were falling down around us. One day, the chancellor came in person to our dorm to say the school couldn't afford a plumber to unclog the toilets. No such problems with the service in the “executive” dining room with the private chef on the top floor of the library.

Hopefully, my husband and I will be able to grow that college fund. FortunateIy, if we are able to send her to a top college, I won't have to worry about my daughter holding her own with elitist snobs. After the Princeton doctor walked away, I checked on her sleeping blissfully in her stroller, and I could not have been prouder of her were she graduating from Harvard (search ). She had her own opinions on all this. She'd expressed them right into her diaper.