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How to Fight Growing Economic and Racial Segregation in Higher Ed

In a new report, “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege,” Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University vividly document how higher education is becoming increasingly stratified by both race and class. More minority students are going to college than ever before, they find, but those students are being channeled increasingly into open-access institutions, while white students increasingly head off to selective four-year colleges. Even with affirmative-action programs, whites are overrepresented at selective colleges by 15 percentage points. The overrepresentation of the richest quarter of the population is even greater, they note, at a staggering 45 percentage points.

Heightened economic and racial segregation matters in higher education, Carnevale and Strohl note, because there are huge disparities in the resources devoted to the education of students at different levels of selectivity. The 82 most selective four-year colleges spend about $28,000 per student annually on instruction, they find, whereas open-access two- and four-year institutions spend about $6,000 per full-time-equivalent student. Controlling for entering preparation levels, students also have considerably higher graduation rates from more selective colleges.

In the report, Carnevale and Strohl do not offer public-policy recommendations to deal with the problems of race and class stratification, but a two-pronged strategy seems appropriate: (1) Find creative ways to strengthen open-access institutions like community colleges and encourage more white and affluent students to attend them; and (2) offer incentives to selective four-year colleges to recruit more low-income and minority students.

The Century Foundation’s Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges From Becoming Separate and Unequal (of which Carnevale was a member) released a report in May that calls for greater state and federal resources to flow to open-access institutions serving students with the greatest needs—roughly the reverse of what happens today. The report also calls for strengthening transfer arrangements between two- and four-year institutions, and creating more honors programs in community colleges.

In theory, to better integrate selective colleges and universities by race and class, higher education could provide a full-throated defense of racial preferences, supplemented with programs to provide a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races. In practice, however, that approach is unlikely to work. Racial preferences are under intense legal and political attack. And Carnevale’s earlier research finds that although universities say they consider both race and class, in reality they triple the representation of black and Latino students through affirmative action (compared with an admissions system based on grades and test scores), but provide no proportional boost to the bottom socioeconomic half.

Within university communities, there are organized constituencies for recruited athletes, the children of alumni, and underrepresented minority students, but by and large there are no such groups for poor and working-class students. Because racial and ethnic diversity is more visible than socioeconomic diversity, colleges hold themselves to a higher standard in ensuring diversity by race. And because doing something about socioeconomic diversity is more expensive than recruiting upper-middle-class students of color, universities shy away from it.

As Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College, told Slate’s Emily Bazelon, there are powerful incentives to avoid admitting low-income students because the financial aid required to support them takes money away from spending on other priorities (like faculty salaries) that can raise college rankings in U.S. News & World Report.

The seeds of a solution to economic and racial exclusion, ironically, may be found in the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas. Under the 7-to-1 Fisher ruling, universities may seek racial diversity, but they now bear “the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.” Those alternatives include providing a preference to economically disadvantaged students of all races or admitting students from the top of their high-school classes.

In the past, the Supreme Court took universities at their word that race-neutral strategies would be unworkable, but under Fisher “the university receives no deference” on such questions.

Such heightened scrutiny is important because while universities have long claimed that race-neutral strategies are ineffective at producing racial diversity, powerful evidence suggests they often work. At the University of Texas, for example, a plan to give priority to socioeconomically disadvantaged students of all races and those in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes resulted in a freshman cohort in 2004 that was 4.5 percent African-American and 16.9 percent Hispanic. That class was more racially and ethnically diverse, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted in his Fisher opinion, than the entering Class of 1996, admitted with racial preferences, which was 4.1 percent African-American and 14.5 percent Hispanic.

The plan also brought robust diversity by socioeconomic status. In 2011, 23 percent of students admitted under the top-10-percent plan came from families making less than $40,000 a year, compared with 10 percent of those admitted under discretionary admissions, which included racial affirmative action.

In my 2012 analysis with Halley Potter, seven of 10 leading universities that dropped the use of race in admissions (often because of voter referenda) were able, through a variety of measures, to meet or exceed levels of both black and Latino representation achieved when race had been a factor in admissions. Income-based affirmative action by itself does not produce adequate levels of racial diversity because black and Latino students, on average, face additional disadvantages associated with housing segregation and low levels of wealth. But including poverty concentrations and wealth as admissions criteria can increase the racial dividend of class-based affirmative action.

Carnevale recently remarked at a Century Foundation forum on Fisher, “I can get you however much race you want at any college in America and never use race.”

By requiring universities to aggressively pursue race-neutral strategies before using race, Fisher provides advocates of socioeconomic diversity within institutions fresh ammunition that could usher in a new frontier for affirmative action. Those updated policies will not step back from the goal of racial diversity, but will move forward significantly to deal with America’s growing economic divide. In this way, the ruling could prove to be a critical lever for greater upward mobility, a phenomenon that until recently, President Obama has noted, “was part and parcel of who we are as Americans.”

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, was executive director of its Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges From Becoming Separate and Unequal and is co-author of A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities That Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences.

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