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Affirmative Action for the Poor

The schools that are most likely to preach about racial diversity have the fewest poor students.

It was the last day of the college tour and we had come to the part where we were once again told that the admissions process was complicated, and that Dartmouth considers “the whole student.” It was a maddeningly routine part of our campus visits, performed at each of the 13 schools we had been to over the previous week. Whatever inscrutable process these schools used to make admissions decisions, I thought, it was not going to be divulged to us today.

It took some digging, but it turns out that a big part of looking at “the whole student” is looking for kids with wealthy parents. 

Research using the federal tax returns of students admitted to every college in the United States over a 14-year period reveals that a student in the top income decile has a whopping 67 percent-greater chance of attending college than a student in the bottom decile. Less than 4 percent of all four-year college students come from families in the bottom quintile. The composition of elite universities are even more skewed toward the rich; kids lucky enough to be born into families at the top of the income distribution are nearly 100 times as likely to attend an Ivy-plus school—the eight Ivy League schools plus the University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke—as those born to poor families.

Of course, you might argue that kids from wealthy families are simply better students, and that colleges are in the business of selecting students who are the most likely to flourish at their schools. The process may not be fair, you might say, but this isn’t their problem. Indeed, there is good evidence kids from wealthy families are better students, and family income is highly correlated with things that predict success at college like standardized test scores. But let’s not pretend that the “whole student” is only about SAT scores and grade point averages. Nearly half of all colleges use legacy as a factor in admissions. Your chances of being admitted to Harvard are seven times higher if your relatives have donated to the school or if you are the child of a faculty member, and six times higher if one of your parents went there. Nor does this explain why most schools practice race-based affirmative action, while effectively practicing anti-affirmative action with respect to income.

Paradoxically, it is the schools that are most likely to preach about racial diversity that have the fewest poor students. Harvard, which prides itself on its anti-racist admissions policy by admitting black students in exact proportion to their representation in the U.S. population (~14 percent), for example, is 45 times more likely to admit kids from the top 1 percent of the income distribution than they are to admit those from the bottom 60 percent.  If Harvard was as concerned with economic diversity as it is with racial diversity, it would accept five times as many students from poor families as it currently does.

In order to achieve its desired racial diversity, Harvard sends recruitment letters to African American, Native American, and Hispanic high schoolers with mid-range SAT scores around 1100 out of a possible 1600. Asian Americans, meanwhile, need to score 250 points higher—1350 for women, and 1380 for men—to receive one. These race-focused policies ignore studies showing that, across all races, growing up in a poor family is by far the best predictor of becoming a poor adult. The chances of remaining in the top income quintile if you are black and born in the top 20 percent, for example, is nearly three times higher than for a person of any race born in the bottom quintile (21.3 percent vs. 8.5 percent). Despite this evidence that poverty is seven times more of an impediment to student achievement than race, most schools continue to practice race-based affirmative action, such that black students attending Harvard score half a standard deviation lower than their Asian counterparts (1408 vs. 1534).

The lack of transparency around economic diversity should not come as a surprise, however, given the importance these schools place on increasing their endowments. Schools like Princeton would rather cop to charges of racism than own up to the problem of classism, because they can appear to be proactive by engineering racial “diversity” without upsetting wealthy benefactors or affecting their bottom line. So long as you assume that all black people are alike, regardless of income or place of birth, all colleges need to do to fulfill their diversity goals is admit more rich, foreign-born minorities, a policy that promotes what Justice Clarence Thomas called the “aesthetic” of diversity. One study showed that while black immigrants make up less than 1 percent of America’s population, they comprise 41 percent of the black students at Ivy League universities. Outside of the Ivy League, immigrant black students attend colleges at four times the rate of native-born black Americans. Seventy-one percent of black and Latino students at Harvard were raised in wealthy families

All of this is even more heartbreaking when you consider the fact that attending a four-year college is unrivaled in its ability to level the playing field for the most disadvantaged kids from any background.  It is the most effective path out of poverty, and nearly eliminates any other disadvantages children may have experienced. Indeed, the poorest students who are lucky enough to attend elite four-year colleges only earn 5 percent less than their richest classmates. In other words, the path most certain to help poor kids climb out of poverty is closed to those who are most likely to benefit.

As the Supreme Court considers the affirmative-action case against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Students for Fair Admissions vs. President & Fellows of Harvard College, it is little wonder that colleges across the country are racing to go test-optional to obfuscate the most quantifiable comparisons between students of different racial backgrounds. Although a policy of income-based affirmative action will bring up some of the same concerns regarding fairness, it is likely to be much less divisive than a race-based approach. Indeed, a Gallup poll found that while 63 percent of Americans, including most black Americans, oppose using race as a factor in college admissions, 61 percent felt that economic circumstances should be considered in the admissions process.

Martin Luther King recognized the discord that race-based policies could cause, and understood the long history of elites using race to pit working-class white and black Americans against each other, writing, “It is my opinion that many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother, will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill of Rights,’ which seeks to give special consideration to the Negro in the context of unemployment, joblessness, etc and does not take into sufficient account [the white worker’s] plight.”

The level of wealth segregation at colleges is a near-perfect mirror of the degree of income segregation in American neighborhoods, offering kids minimal exposure to peers from different economic backgrounds. Any diversity a well-off child is likely to experience at college is unlikely to involve interactions with poor kids. What sort of outrage would attend these facts if Americans were even half as obsessed with economic diversity as they are with race? This economic caste system may be hard to see, but it is even harder to solve.

Robert Lynch is an evolutionary anthropologist at Penn State whose research includes the effect of  immigration on social capital, how social isolation promotes populism, and the evolutionary function of laughter. His Twitter handle is @Robertflynch.