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Continued: Race vs. class: Inequality has shifted debate since Court last ruled on affirmative action

  • Article by: JUSTIN POPE , AP Education Writer
  • Last update: June 16, 2013 - 10:35 AM

"Narrowing these gaps is a matter of economic and social collective self-interest," he said.

But other numbers in the same report revealed how profoundly family income determines how far you go in school: Four-fifths of 24-year-olds from families in the top quarter of income have college degrees, compared to just one in 10 in the bottom quartile.

Other research, while calling the black-white degree gap worrisome, concludes the gap measured by class alone is far broader. Students of all races from educated affluent families are seven times more likely to complete a bachelor's degree than students from low-income families with less education (68 percent compared to 9 percent).

One study of the freshmen entering the 193 most selective colleges in 2010 found two-thirds came from the top income quartile. Only 15 percent came from the bottom half of the country, income-wise.

At the top 20 law schools, another study found, more than three-quarters of students came from the richest income quartile.

"We continue to struggle with racial discrimination in this country, but class has become a far larger impediment to a person's life chances than race," said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and a prominent advocate for replacing race-based affirmative action with class-conscious measures.

On college campuses, arguments over race and gender have predominated for decades, but the lack of socio-economic diversity is getting more attention. One sign of the trend is the emergence of a student group called "U/FUSED" (United for Undergraduate Socio-Economic Diversity), with chapters on about 20 prominent campuses. Chapters at campuses like Wesleyan University and Washington University in St. Louis have undertaken a range of efforts, from developing a financial literacy curriculum to lobbying for more financial aid.

But mostly, said Chase Sackett, who helped found the organization while an undergraduate at Washington University and is now a law student at Yale, the groups are getting people to talk about the previously taboo subjects of class, money and inequality.

College students are actually fairly accustomed to talking about race, he said, but class "was something that was under the rug." He said minority groups have been eager to join the conversation, seeing it as complementary to the issues they care about.

Kahlenberg, who informally advises the group, said such an organization would have been unthinkable in his own college days during the 1980s. But "the facts on the ground have changed." The test-score gap between blacks and whites, he noted, was once twice as big as the gap between rich and poor students. Now that's flipped and the income gap is twice as big as the racial one.

Sackett said he and the group don't necessarily oppose race-based affirmative action; they just want more efforts to deal with socio-economic diversity.

Indeed, many people ask, why not do both? Kahlenberg says he's all for that, but "universities never get around to the class part of the equation. They would rather have a class of fairly wealthy students of all races." A big obstacle is cost: By definition low-income students need more financial aid, while race-based preferences don't necessarily go to the neediest students. In fact, research has confirmed large proportions of minority students at selective colleges come from middle- and upper-income families.

Kahlenberg believes with some creativity, colleges can use class-based affirmative action to ensure racial diversity. That's happened at many schools in states where affirmative action is already banned. However, the broader consensus is that, at least in the short term and at the most elite schools, replacing race-based preferences with class-based efforts would cause minority enrollment to fall.

"Low-income will not replace diversity," said Ted Spencer, admissions director at the University of Michigan, which won the right to use race as an admissions factor in the 2003 Supreme Court case, but later lost it in a voter referendum. Michigan's numbers of minority students have not fully recovered.

But Spencer emphasized the court's justification for race-based affirmative action has never been only about minorities, or about rectifying society-wide discrimination, or about pitting racial barriers against class ones.

Rather, the court's justification was educational — that all students benefit from a racially diverse student body. Employers increasingly want students accustomed to working with people from different groups, and many students want that experience, too. If the court rules as expected, he's worried they'll have few options.

"As we prepare people for work and life," he said, "the absence of diversity on campus deprives all of our students of a very important part of their academic growth."

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