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May 20, 2003

Affirmative Action, Part II


As I promised, here is Part II of my post on affirmative action. In this part I lay out a program for low socio-economic affirmative action, which I believe should replace race-based affirmative action. Part I, which can be read here, discusses my criticisms of arguments for race-based affirmative action.

My discussion of this topic is indebted to the excellent study, “Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, And Selective College Admissions,” (2003) by Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose, which you can read here.

Following are arguments in favor of a low socio-economic affirmative action plan:

Argument #1: Low socio-economic affirmative action has far more political support than race-based affirmative action. Public opinion polls commissioned by Carnevale and Rose revealed the lack of support for race-based affirmative action programs:

Americans…strongly associate affirmative action with racial preferences and do not view racial preferences favorably. Among White Americans, 52 percent say affirmative action should be abolished, and more than 80 percent oppose preference in hiring and promotions for racial minorities, even when the programs may help compensate for “past discrimination.

Meanwhile, low-socio-economic affirmative action receives strong political support, as it conforms much more closely to traditional American values:

Our polling is consistent with the findings of other research that has found that Americans endorse policies that promote upward mobility for high-achieving students from poor and working-class backgrounds. A large segment [of the public] wants to reward and encourage students who succeed despite heavy odds. Many believe colleges should enroll such students even if their test scores and grades fall slightly below those of other high- income applicants.

Argument #2: There is a far larger pool of very capable low socio-economic students out there than are currently attending highly selective schools. The effects of financial barriers can be seen in several different statistics. One such statistic reveals that by no means all highly qualified students end up attending highly selective universities. According to Carnevale and Rose,

Of those who had an SAT-equivalent score greater than 1300 and attended a four-year college, only 41 percent went to the 146 top-tier colleges. Twenty-two percent enrolled in second-tier colleges, 25 percent attended third-tier colleges, and 12 percent enrolled in fourth-tier institutions.

This is despite the fact that, as we saw in Part I, attending such colleges tends confers a major boost, career-wise, on students from a low-socio-economic background. I can only assume that financial constraints are a significant factor in such an outcome.

Argument Three: Highly selective schools are not trying very hard to recruit low SES students, and, consequently, they don’t admit very many of them. In marked contrast to the situation with race-based affirmative action, where in the year 2000, 66 percent of four-year public colleges and 54 percent of four-year private colleges recruited minority students, the efforts aimed by highly selective colleges at recruiting low socio-economic students are much more minimal.

The share of colleges that recruits economically disadvantaged students is generally a little more than half of those that recruit minorities. Generally, the share…in four-year private colleges [was] 24 percent …Among public institutions, the shares of institutions that recruited economically disadvantaged students…declined from 44 to 37 percent in four-year public colleges.

Given the significant costs and intimidating aura of highly selective universities, this feeble effort at outreach has pretty much the effect one would expect:

There is even less socioeconomic diversity than racial or ethnic diversity at the most selective colleges…We find that 74 percent of the students at the top 146 highly selective colleges came from families in the top quarter of the SES scale (as measured by combining family income and the education and occupations of the parents), just 3 percent came from the bottom SES quartile, and roughly 10 percent came from the bottom half of the SES scale. [Emphasis added.]

Given that a pool of qualified students with low socio-economic levels exists, I believe that public colleges and universities should have a mandatory requirement/quota for low SES students, since they seem largely content to ignore these people when left to their own devices.

Argument Four: Low Socio-Economic Affirmative Action is needed because colleges aren’t putting their money where their mouths are in terms of seeking “diversity.” It’s getting harder, not easier, for kids from low socio-economic backgrounds to attend college, as Carnevale and Rose point out:

In all postsecondary institutions, except two- year public colleges, there was an increase in the share of students whose financial needs were not fully met between 1992 and 2000, a finding consistent with other data. In the same survey, respondents also reported an increase in the average amount of unmet need…Financial aid for economic disadvantage (29 percent among four year colleges) ranks lower than racial/ethnic minorities (32 percent), athletes (32 percent), students with special nonacademic talents (37 percent), and academically talented students (57 percent).

I suspect financial considerations strongly explain the “commitment” of universities to race-based affirmative action: recruiting middle class blacks and Latinos allow universities to look socially conscious while minimizing the impact on their budgets.

Argument 5: A switch from race-based affirmative action to socio-economic affirmative action is necessary in order to stop middle class minority students from displacing genuinely disadvantaged students. Carnevale and Rose lay the impact of current policies on genuinely poor kids seeking to go to a highly selective college:

Our analysis finds that race and ethnicity is a significant consideration for [highly selective] colleges, boosting admissions from 4 percent under a system of grades and test scores for African Americans and Latinos to 12 percent enrolled. By contrast, we find that being economically disadvantaged, on net, reduces, rather than improves, chances of enrolling at one of the 146 most selective colleges. Admission based on tests and grades alone [i.e., strict “meritocracy” would increase] socioeconomic diversity…

I bring this up because it outrages me to see race being used as a sloppy synonym for disadvantage, and thus exploited by cheap-ass colleges who publicly sing hosannas to their own virtue. Nonetheless, I am not advocating a strict program of meritocracy for low socio-economic kids, as it is clear that the notion of “it’s not high you get, but how far you’ve climbed” (often hijacked as an argument for race-based affirmative action) genuinely applies to students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Argument 6: Low Socio-Economic Affirmative Action will vitiate the need for angry debates about “how long will this program last to make up for historical injustice?” Such a program will, presumably, be permanent.

Moving to such a program will, according to the analyses by Carnevale and Rose, reduce the levels of black and Latino students at highly selective universities. This is deeply regrettable, but I think it’s time American educators stopped using “band-aids” like affirmative action to avoid undertaking the truly important task confronting them: fixing the broken public schools of this country. Clearly, elementary and secondary schools will be the main battlegrounds of this war, not colleges.

Rather than indulging in orgies of self-congratulation about how un-racist they are, highly selective schools should get off their rears and justify their tax-exempt status by opening their own experimental elementary and high schools to study how to get all kids up to speed.

Clearly, the real issue in education today seems to be convincing all children that working hard at their education will pay real benefits. Elementary and high schools need to be restructured so that they focus on achieving various key skills in each and every student . By this I mean reading to certain standards, writing and speaking to certain standards, math to certain standards, etc. Schools must abandon the current “serving time” model that foolishly teaches kids to go through the motions until the calendar releases them from jail on their 18th birthday. A closer link between the skills developed in schools and employment (which should be, minimally, guaranteed by the state to those who commit to the educational program) must be made. Otherwise the United States will continue to neglect the talents, contribution and dignity of far too many of its citizens.



posted by Friedrich at May 20, 2003


Parts I and II together make a great deal of sense and are nicely stated. The final two paragraphs of Part II also seem to lead to a Part III, which would be quite interesting to read should it ever be written.

Posted by: teacher x on May 20, 2003 11:36 AM

So, I could drink my kid into Harvard by becoming an alcoholic, losing my job, and lowering my family's social class? What a great rationalizaton for drinking!

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 20, 2003 12:36 PM

Hey Steve, I'll by the first round!

Seriously, Fried:
"Elementary and high schools need to be restructured so that they focus on achieving various key skills..."

I'm sorry but to me this comes off a little like "housing should be more affordable." I haven't met too many people who wouldn't agree with your statement - the problem is agreeing on a pragmatic way of achieving that goal.

But, yeah, I like your plan. Although I'm not sure it's more reasonable than my plan of forbidding the spawn of a college grad from attending mater and pater's schools. (Both of you, as graduates of lousy ivy schools, would have to send your kids to community college.)

Posted by: j.c. on May 20, 2003 1:27 PM

"A closer link between the skills developed in school and employment (which should, minimally be guaranteed by the state to those who commit to the educational program)must be made."

My, that certainly sounds left-wing. The state? Plenty of college grads from first and second-tier schools are sweating it out this spring in this lousy job market, and they've committed to a far greater educational program than what you are referring to. All this, while every state is already running huge deficits and cutting jobs and programs. So...raise taxes to pay for "guaranteed employment"? Gee...I imagine that might generate a few sputtering blowhard columns. You're sounding downright Marxist here!

Sounds to me like a few details of your plan might need de-bugging.

Posted by: annette on May 20, 2003 2:15 PM

Carnevale & Rose find that almost 60% of students in the lowest SES quartile who score above 1300 on the SAT do not attend a top-tier college, and C&R attribute this mainly to the failure of universities to do any meaningful outreach. This surely is one factor, but what about the 800-pound gorilla in the corner: the sky-high cost of college tuition? It turns out that schools use some stealthy tactics to get around this. C&R makes an example of the admissions strategy at 80% of schools (pg 26): practicing a need-blind admissions policy, and then relying on sticker price shock to discourage low-income student applications.

If the salient barrier to attending college is the cost of tuition, then the relevant conversation is not so much about affirmative action reform, but financial aid policy reform. That is to say, affirmative action is about acceptance policy, and we know that low-SES kids are not even applying to or are choosing not to attend schools because of the forbidding cost of attendance. This is compounded by surprising financial aid statistics such as C&R describe on pg 26: (1) "between 1992 and 2000, ...[students] reported an increase in the average amount of unmet need", and yet (2) "the share of state aid going to 'no need' students is rising."

With this in mind, I would go further with your proposals in Pt II: financial aid reform should benefit all of the country's best students, and not just the best among the poorest. C&R's study doesn't include students throughout the SES distribution, and those segments include families with very humble incomes, eg, the median income for the fourth quintile of households is only $65,727. The fact is that $22,000/year in tuition stacked against a family's obligations to the IRS, the mortgage, the car note, insurance, a child's education and other expenses, etc, is just not a lot of cake. Ultimately, the best students all across the SES spectrum are having to make a difficult decision when weighing the prospects of deep debt against a gamble on future gain. And as you said in Pt I, a sterling diploma doesn't necessarily translate to career dollars.

As a bonus, and I know you'll like this Friedrich, this kind of financial aid reform would more completely address the aspect of meritocracy in the top-tier schools.

Re your last two paragraphs, it was good to be able to agree with you again.

Posted by: M on May 20, 2003 11:13 PM

Friedrich? Is M right? Let's get specific here. Never mind the arguments why "it" is is a good idea: can you tell us exactly what "it" is? Do you just want schools to give preference in their admissions process to poorer kids, or do you actually want them to pay those kids' tuition as well? Because surely the reason why 74% of top-university students come from the top 25% of the income spectrum has everything to do with being able to afford the tuition fees, and relatively (relatively, I said) little to do with a conscious or unconscious bias on the part of the universities towards those applicants with privileged backgrounds.

Posted by: Felix on May 20, 2003 11:27 PM


Glad to see you back in the debate, even if we apparently still don't see perfectly eye to eye.


Obviously giving these kids access to highly selective schools is meaningless unless it's financially possible for the kids to attend. I'm not sure making the cost a complete gift is necessary, just making a package of tuition, work-study and loans that are sufficient to "get the job done."


It will have to be another post before I can completely lay out my ideas on guaranteed jobs for, say, high school graduates. I would only point out that high school would look very different under my proposals, and that such job guarantees would be offset by savings in many other anti-poverty programs.

The current social welfare agenda of the U.S. was largely designed by the Democratic Party, which has earned my nickname for them ("The Party of Stupid Socialists") many times over. If we are going to have a social welfare agenda, which I think we will and should, it needs to be seriously rethought. What is needed, it seems to me, would be such an agenda that would provide social welfare while simultaneously not providing anti-social incentives, and while not discouraging the human development of the recipients (the current system clearly fails on both counts). As for paying for this, I suspect that if U.S. federal and state governments would stop indulging in all sorts of spending boondoggles (the recent agriculture bill leaps to mind) this agenda could be funded without too much trouble.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 21, 2003 12:29 PM

And who would pay for your package, Friedrich? I can think of a few sources:

1) The federal government
2) Higher tuition fees
3) Forcing universities to spend a higher percentage of their endowments each year -- although that would work only for the relatively few universities with very large endowments
4) A graduate tax.

Personally, I'm in favour of all except for (2).

Posted by: Felix on May 21, 2003 1:22 PM

Well, your ideas certainly seem more productive than the current system, and if they save $ in the process, great.

Posted by: annette on May 21, 2003 2:27 PM

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