Increasing diversity in higher education through class

For more than four decades, affirmative action programmes in the United States have sought to create equal educational opportunity for historically disadvantaged groups. Over that time we have made undeniable progress, clearing a path to higher education for women and students of colour.

Still, as the number of students pursuing a college degree has risen, the income divide on college campuses has widened.

Today, only one third of high school students in the lowest socio-economic quartile will attend a four-year college. More startling, only 7% will earn a college degree. At America’s most selective colleges, you are 25 times more likely to encounter a rich student than a poor one.

Ironically, all this is taking place at the same time as a series of voter initiatives and legal challenges threaten to eliminate race-based affirmative action as we know it. The confluence of these factors has sparked an interest in a different brand of affirmative action – one based not on gender or race, but rather on socio-economic class.

Proponents of ‘class-based affirmative action’ argue that it not only recognises and addresses deep economic inequalities in American society, but also supports racial diversity by capitalising on the large overlap between race and socio-economic disadvantage. Opponents, on the other hand, fear that if class fully replaces race in college admissions decisions, racial diversity on college campuses will plummet.

Ultimately, these arguments may be settled in the Supreme Court, which in June 2013 put universities on notice when it emphasised that race-conscious admissions programmes are only permissible when “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the benefits of diversity”.

Disadvantage Index

History suggests that curtailing or eliminating race-based admissions will not wipe out efforts to maintain diversity on college campuses. In the past two decades, multiple states have banned the practice and colleges and universities have responded by pursuing alternate means to support campus diversity.

That is what happened in 2008, when a state ballot initiative threatened to outlaw race-based affirmative action in Colorado. In response the University of Colorado Boulder, or CU, implemented a class-based affirmative action system designed to admit a broadly diverse class while complying with the proposed ban.

At the heart of CU’s class-based system are two statistical measures, which the University uses to identify and give special consideration to applicants who have persevered in the face of socio-economic obstacles.

The ‘Disadvantage Index’ flags applicants whose socio-economic status has substantially reduced their chances of enrolling in college. The ‘Overachievement Index’ flags applicants whose academic credentials, such as SAT or ACT scores, far exceed those of students with similar backgrounds. Ultimately, the applicants identified by these indices are given a leg up in the admissions process.

The development of CU’s class-based admissions indices was complex, not least because so few examples of class-based admissions systems are detailed in the public domain. Admissions practices at selective universities are closely guarded secrets. This is understandable given the intense scrutiny and high stakes involved.

But if race-neutral admissions approaches are to be widely adopted, we can no longer afford to operate in an empirical vacuum. To that end, the University of Colorado has made efforts to disseminate research on its innovative class-based measures.

With my colleague Melissa Hart, I detail the Disadvantage and Over-achievement Indices in the August 2013 issue of Harvard Law & Policy Review. The article also summarises controlled experiments using these indices, which showed promising results.

Improved performance

Using the race-blind indices to replace race-based admissions, it turns out, increased acceptance rates for not only economically disadvantaged applicants, but also racial minorities. Moreover, using the indices to supplement race-based admissions substantially increased acceptance rates for low-income and minority applicants.

Our analyses also suggest that students who benefit from class-based affirmative action can handle college-level work. In fact, those identified by the Over-achievement Indices may perform better in college than typical undergraduates.

Of course, the successes and failures of class-conscious admissions policies will be evaluated by enrolment numbers, not experiments. Colorado’s class-based system was fully implemented in 2011, and in September of that year the university enrolled the most diverse freshmen class in its history.

The Disadvantage and Over-achievement Indices cannot take all the credit; admissions policies are only one of the tools universities like CU can use to support campus diversity.

Colleges will need to execute comprehensive strategies that include encouraging disadvantaged students to apply and then supporting their academic development once they have arrived on campus.

Class-based admissions policies, however, are an indispensable piece of the college access puzzle and it is worth noting that admissions preferences need not be an either-or proposition.

Our research suggests that considering race and class jointly should help universities open pathways to higher education for all students who have traditionally faced economic, social and institutional barriers.

Such reforms are essential if higher education is to fulfil its promise, in the words of former Massachusetts education secretary Horace Mann, as “a great equaliser of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery”.

* Dr Matthew Gaertner worked with the University of Colorado Boulder office of admissions to create the class-based admissions indices and is currently a research scientist in the Center for College & Career Success at Pearson. @MatthewGaertner. http://ResearchNetwork.Pearson.com

* Picture credit: 123RF Stock Photos.