Unrest on campuses across the country may have altered the Supreme Court justices’ views on affirmative action, in light of today’s ruling to stay the course. While the unrest reflects colleges’ struggles with commitments to diversity and inclusion, it also reflects anxiety and anger about racism beyond campus boundaries.
Conditions on college campuses today should reinforce the importance of affirmative action policies. Even with affirmative action policies in place for many years, African-American and other underrepresented groups have less access to selective higher education. This means less access to greater resources and subsidies supported by the public sector, to higher graduation rates, and ultimately to better jobs and graduate schools.
Some have argued that class- or income-based affirmative action would be preferable to race-based affirmative action. Many of the same concerns about economic mobility apply to low-income and middle-income white families as they do to underrepresented minority families. But the solution is to add programs for all low- and middle-income students, not take away policies that are working for some.
Let’s start with some data. About 60 percent of African-American households and about 52 percent of Hispanic households in 2014 had incomes below $45,000, while only 40 percent of white households did. And statistics on wealth are even more alarming. In 2013, median net worth of white families was $141,900 compared to $11,000 for Black families and $13,700 for Hispanic families.
Additionally, intergenerational income mobility has stagnated in America and fallen relative to other countries. Thirty-six percent of those born in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution will remain there and only 10 percent will make it into the top quintile, contrary to rhetoric about America being the land of equal opportunity and social mobility. And, 30 percent of those born into the top quintile will remain there, while only 11 percent of them will end up in the bottom quintile.
Higher education can make the critical difference in turning the tide for social mobility. Getting a bachelor’s degree increases expected lifetime earnings and the likelihood that someone will move up the income distribution. Current research shows that having a bachelor’s increases lifetime earnings on average by 65 percent compared to only having a high school diploma. With a college degree, the probability that someone born in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution will remain there falls to 16 percent.
Yet earning a bachelor’s depends not just on merit in America, but on both race and family income. While 44 percent of whites (ages 25 to 64) have a higher education credential, only 28 percent of African-Americans do, 23 percent of Native Americans, and only 20 percent of Hispanics. Educational attainment also differs by family income. Eighty-two percent of students in the top third of the income distribution go to college, compared to 53 percent in the bottom third.
At the same time, the higher education system in the United States has evolved in such a way that the most selective colleges and universities have the most resources to invest in their students. They spend the most per student and offer the largest subsidies to all students. And these colleges and universities, both private nonprofit and public, receive significant public support through appropriations, grants and special tax treatment, which make their levels of expenditure and subsidy possible. This support is based in large part on the public benefits of access to higher education, including equal opportunity and social mobility.
But the benefits of this public support mostly go to higher-income students, who apply to college having attended strong K-12 education as well as with additional investments in their education from their families. These higher-income students are significantly overrepresented at the selective private, nonprofit and public institutions. Statistically, this remains true even if students’ academic accomplishments at the time of admission are taken into account.
If left unaddressed, these characteristics of American higher education will reinforce or worsen income inequality and low intergenerational income mobility, rather than contribute to economic and social mobility by countering these trends.
The rules of the game are not fair. As the Court wisely recognized with today’s 4-3 ruling, affirmative action policies and related steps are needed until the playing field for higher education access and completion is truly level for all.
Catharine Bond Hill is president and professor of economics at Vassar College.