We Don’t Need a Different “Affirmative Action”

On
the day the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. Texas, a case challenging racial preferences in college
admissions, the Wall Street Journal published a piece purporting to give “A
Liberal Critique of Racial Preferences.”

Author
Richard Kahlenberg argued (as he almost always does) in favor of changing “affirmative
action” to a system based on socio-economic class. That is, rather than
colleges giving preference to students because of their ancestry, they would
instead give preferences to students from relatively poor families. Kahlenberg
thinks it better to selectively admit some applicants, no matter what their
race, from low-income and working-class families than to admit some from
affluent families on account of their race.

The
case for preferences based on socio-economic status (SES) is no better than
that for race. I will focus on the most central one: It accomplishes no good.

Kahlenberg’s
argument is that racial preferences made sense in the past, when doors were closed
to many Americans based on their skin color, but today “obstacles to
opportunity are more closely associated with economic disadvantage.”

I
strongly disagree. Today the “obstacles to opportunity” are overwhelmingly
creations of government: occupational licensure, minimum wage laws, red tape
that impedes business formation, and so on. Those obstacles affect everyone,
although they have their strongest impact on the poor. But being poor is not itself
an obstacle.

But
this is besides the point. Kahlenberg isn’t describing a generic plan to boost
up the poor and working-class. He wants elite colleges and universities to give
prefer to the children of poor and working-class families. Suppose that a
plumber’s daughter in North Carolina has grades and SAT scores that make her an
automatic admit at UNC-Charlotte and a fairly likely admit at NC State. She applies
to Duke on a whim and is accepted not for her academic prowess but Duke’s desire
for SES diversity.

As
a diligent student, she will succeed whether she goes to UNCC, NC State, or
Duke, although at the latter she might find herself competing with students who
have more academic ability. Even if going to Duke wouldn’t cost her more (and
it almost certainly will), how is it beneficial for her to go there? Her career
prospects depend on her own accomplishments, not the name of her alma mater.

There
are two hidden assumptions in Kahlenberg’s argument — that elite schools give
students elite education and that America will be a fairer country if children
from “lower” SES backgrounds attend elite schools. Neither assumption is correct.
The supposedly elite schools don’t necessarily provide a better education.
Moreover, shuffling a few students “up” into those schools — while
simultaneously shuffling an equal number of non-preferred students “down” —
won’t make America any fairer. 

George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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