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The Supreme Court ruled in June that the nation’s courts must strictly scrutinize race-based affirmative action plans at universities and colleges, a decision that could prompt a gradual retreat from the use of race in college admissions. Some researchers see a silver lining for the cause of diversity in higher education, however. They hope that making it tougher to use race could force universities to consider socio-economic status when building their freshmen classes and help close the gap in college enrollment between the poor and wealthy.

Race-based affirmative action
University of Colorado Boulder (Photo by Matt Evett)Photo by Matt Evett

Proponents of race-based affirmative action point to research showing that switching to class-based admissions policies can hurt racial diversity. But an exception to these findings is a policy adopted at University of Colorado Boulder (CU), where a pair of researchers devised a system that looked at students’ experiences of disadvantage, such as their parent’s income and education level, and also looked at whether they had achieved beyond what was expected of students like them when it came to grades and tests like the ACT. The class-based plan yielded a group of freshman that was more economically diverse—with a larger proportion of poor students—but also slightly more racially diverse than the previous race-based plan.

The Hechinger Report spoke with one of the researchers, Matt Gaertner, of Pearson’s Center for College & Career Success, about the Supreme Court decision and his findings at CU.

The issue in the recent Supreme Court decision based on a case against University of Texas Austin was that the school has two admissions systems running side-by-side—one that’s explicitly race-conscious and the Top 10 percent program, which doesn’t take race explicitly into account although it’s intended to ensure racial diversity. Do you think both are necessary to get a sufficiently diverse class of students?

The research at the University of Colorado does show some promise in that you can implement a race-neutral, or class-based alternative…and at least cushion the effects of losing the ability to consider race in the admissions program.

There’s some promise there, but the concern is to what extent does this generalize to the Ivies, to schools like Harvard.

We try to make this clear …that there are good independent reasons to consider class and race and those programs are after similar fundamental principles that a diversity of perspectives in the classroom is important…and it’s good that we graduate leaders from college who are sensitive to those perspectives.

Affirmative action is typically more of an issue at more selective institutions, where the application process is more competitive. So does a system like the one at University of Colorado apply to a place like Harvard?

Class-based systems focus on the personal qualities of applicants. Anytime you have a university that has competitive admissions, whether CU or Harvard, you are going to have students who are on the cusp of getting in, and for those students personal qualities tend to make the most difference. If there are those kinds of students…at Harvard…this sort of a class-based system could be reasonably applied at all universities.

The caveat to that is that research has shown that at some very selective schools, the boost or the leg up associated with race is very large. So in those cases, at a Harvard or a Princeton, you’d probably have to build a class-based system that had significant influence in the admissions process. You can’t just pay lip service at those schools.

How likely is that selective institutions would embrace class-based affirmative action and not, as you say, just pay lip service?

With race-based considerations in place at these selective schools, very little attention has been paid to socio-economic status. But in places [where race-based affirmative action has been banned] we have seen an expansion of class-based affirmative action.

I’m a bit of an idealist, but I think there are reasons to consider both race and class. But that means that universities actually need to do it.

In your study, you found that the class-based system admitted students who are less prepared academically. How are those students doing?

That’s our next paper. You can’t just let anybody into college, especially if they’re not prepared to do college level work. That’s not doing anyone any favors.

We found students who were admitted under class-base system who wouldn’t have been admitted under the race-based system. We were able to match them to historical students at CU, so we could follow many years of progress.

In a nutshell, the class-based admits don’t perform as well as typical admits, but more than half of them actually graduate. Considering that the average graduation rate [at CU] is about 66 percent, that’s not so bad. It was worse [than the average], but more than half of them ultimately graduated. Their cumulative GPAs were worse, but by about .2 of a GPA.

This year, the diversity numbers at CU were quite high. I don’t think the class-based system can take full credit, but I think that’s something that’s a positive outcome.

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