Is class-based or race-based affirmative action best?

Several countries around the world have implemented or permitted affirmative action programmes in higher education. In most of them the main criterion for eligibility is membership of specific racial and ethnic groups or castes.

For example, under India's reservation policy a percentage of seats in higher education is reserved for members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the two most disadvantaged groups in India. New Zealand's universities maintain quotas for Maori student admittance. Students of Malay origin in Malaysia are given preferential treatment in admissions to government universities.

Two decades ago the University of Cape Town, one of the most selective institutions in South Africa, introduced affirmative action for black and mixed-race students, who were rarely represented in the student body during the apartheid years. Several selective universities in Brazil also began using race-conscious admissions policies around the millennium.

Finally, most leading colleges and professional schools in the United States have given black and Hispanic applicants special consideration in admissions since the 1960s.

Interestingly, despite notable between-country differences, the affirmative action programmes in all of these countries have been subject to criticism and all have come under pressure to account for other aspects of disadvantage.

In the US an upcoming Supreme Court ruling may push the elite colleges and universities in America to embark on a class-based road in affirmative action, that is, policies that give an edge in college admissions to the socio-economically disadvantaged. In India, there are similar suggestions to base preferential treatment eligibility on multiple disadvantages – gender, economic and geographic factors, as well as type of prior schooling – and not on caste.

The South African debate on race-based affirmative action focuses on whether the children of the emerging black middle and upper classes should continue to get the same break on admissions as impoverished black students. The University of Cape Town has recently implemented a new policy that considers race along with other measures of disadvantage – such as, for example, the quality of an applicant’s high school attainment and the educational attainment of his parents — in order to broaden access to underprivileged students.

Brazil has already shifted to a race-conscious class-based model of affirmative action in college admissions (in 2012 via the Law of Social Quotas) where seats are reserved for applicants from public high schools and poor families but must also match the racial make-up of each state.

Class-based affirmative action in Israel

The first country to implement race-neutral class-based affirmative action in university admissions worldwide was Israel and it provides a unique opportunity to assess the effect of such programmes on various outcomes.

The programme, adopted in the mid-2000s by four of the country’s most selective universities, targets disadvantaged applicants and it is completely race-neutral and also needs-blind. That is, in evaluating the eligibility of applicants, neither their financial status nor their ethnic origins are considered.

The emphasis, rather, is on structural determinants of disadvantage, specifically on neighbourhood and high school socio-economic status (some individual hardships are also weighed).

As the research in my new book Race, Class, and Affirmative Action shows, class-based affirmative action is a solid alternative to race-conscious college admissions, but, lamentably, it is not a problem-free, or superior, alternative.

Israel’s class-based affirmative action programme expands access for academically borderline applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds to a quality education and thus widens the avenue for mobility for groups at the bottom of the hierarchy. By enhancing the access of wide-ranging disadvantaged populations to the most selective university majors, this policy has successfully augmented the level of geographic, socio-economic and demographic diversity at elite universities in Israel.

The class-based programme not only has an effect on the level of spatial diversity, but also enhances the representation in elite universities of ethnic minorities (that is, Jews of Asian and African origin and Arabs), new immigrants, poor individuals and individuals from poor localities. Given the race-neutral nature of the class-based policy, it is quite remarkable that about half of all affirmative action admits are ethnic minorities.

Yet it is also true that if Israeli universities had implemented an affirmative action programme that explicitly took into account ethnicity – giving an edge in admission to Arabs and Mizrahi Jews – the level of ethnic diversity would have been much higher.

Simultaneously, I have assessed how the diversity dividends of American race-conscious admissions programmes measure up against different types of class-based affirmative action. The results demonstrate that class-based programmes could boost the socio-economic diversity at these bastions of privilege. Yet, the student bodies of elite colleges in the US would be substantially less racially and ethnically diverse than they are now.

No silver bullet

Taken together, the findings suggest that there is no silver bullet for generating broad diversity at elite institutions. All prototypes of race- and class-based affirmative action that were tested fall short of achieving broad diversity, both in Israel and the US. Diversity is about trade-offs: gains in one aspect of diversity are losses in another. This makes broad diversity a difficult target.

This means that if we wish to infuse elite college campuses with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, then the design of preferential admissions must target multiple criteria simultaneously. Such hybrid programmes do not create the highest level of diversity in any one aspect, but generate a more diverse package overall.

The decision, then, about how to reform affirmative action in college admissions is not about choosing between the race and class models, but about determining what aspects we should target in order to achieve the broadest, and most desirable, diversity dividends.

Sigal Alon is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, Israel, and author of a new book from the Russell Sage Foundation, Race, Class, and Affirmative Action. This article is based on her recent lecture at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley in the US on 5 April on race, class and affirmative action.


More places should try to implement a tertiary preparation programme like many universities in Australia do (i.e. both my alma mater institutions do this: the University of the Sunshine Coast and the University of Queensland). This helps students from backgrounds that are traditionally disadvantaged at going into higher education to achieve this.

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page