Socioeconomic Status—The Good Kind of Affirmative Action?

Lambasted from the Left and the Right and misused by universities to circumvent prohibited racial preferences, America’s core values demand reassessment of socioeconomic affirmative action.

The Statue of Liberty proclaims: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” A basic tenet of American exceptionalism is our upward mobility. Just about every American has the opportunity to be Speaker of the House, a titan of industry, or an anchor on the evening news. While disparities remain, we used to strive for equality of opportunity, and I believe many of us still do.

Race-based preferences threaten America’s meritocracy, our lead in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and our standard of living. However, normalizing the scoring of test results and other factors used in the admissions process to better predict success of underprivileged students, referred to as “socioeconomic affirmative action,” is consistent with our values. It enriches our universities with diverse perspectives, benefits disadvantaged students of all races and ethnicities, and enhances our competitiveness. In short, it’s the right thing to do.

Until recently, one of our most cherished values has been our individuality—the right of every American to be evaluated and rewarded as a unique human without regard to, and certainly not because of, skin color, religion, or ethnicity. We sought to help our underprivileged without harming the successful among us.

Initially, proponents of affirmative action saw it as a way to equalize opportunity, particularly for racial minorities. In its benign form of outreach to recruit applicants or overcome skepticism that an application would be fairly considered, affirmative action is widely supported, including by 62% of American adults in a July 2021 Gallup Poll.

But weaponizing affirmative action to use race in admissions and employment is overwhelmingly unpopular. A 2016 Gallup Poll found that 70% of Americans oppose the use of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions, including 61% of Latinos and 50% of blacks. A 2019 PEW survey found that 73% of American adults, including 65% of Latinos and 62% of blacks, oppose considering race or ethnicity in admission decisions. A 2021 College Plus survey found that 67% of undergraduates, including 66% of Latinos and 55% of blacks, favor a “race-blind” admissions policy. Nine states ban racial preferences in admissions. Last year, left-leaning California rejected an effort to repeal its ban by a 57% to 43% margin.

Opposition to race-based admissions preferences centers on the use of race instead of personal qualities, contravening the individual responsibility for which America has always strived and the essence of the 14thAmendment and civil rights laws.

Opposition also focuses on three secondary factors: racial preferences (i) create a victim mentality that teaches members of its favored races and ethnicities that they can’t succeed without special advantages; (ii) devalue credentials, making it impossible for graduate schools and employers to assess a resume; and (iii) result in academic mismatch by which many beneficiaries can’t keep up. They cluster at the bottom of the class, drop out of school, and switch out of STEM majors at alarming rates.

Race-based admissions preferences harm at least as many individuals as they purport to benefit by denying admission to far more qualified white and Asian applicants. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) eliminates any pretense of equalizing opportunity by consigning individuals to baskets based solely on race, gender preference, and other demographic categories. The Supreme Court has found racial balancing and quotas to be unconstitutional or illegal, but has endorsed the nearly-identical goal of diversity and has sustained racial preferences that are indistinguishable from quotas.

Race-based affirmative action is rightly tainted by what it has become. There are better, constitutionally valid means of fulfilling the promise of equal opportunity, all while attaining racial and economic diversity and enhancing competitiveness.

In states that have outlawed race-based preferences, some universities introduced programs ostensibly to benefit low socioeconomic applicants. Usually, their real purpose was to circumvent the ban. Very few universities have implemented affirmative action genuinely intended to benefit students from impoverished or low-income families.

As described below, in many elite schools, the beneficiaries of racial preferences are financially and socially advantaged, while underprivileged students of all races are excluded. Because the Supreme Court held in Fisher v. University of Texas (2013) that colleges cannot employ racial preferences unless “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity,” many purportedly race-neutral affirmative action programs are, in fact, designed to achieve the goals of the overt racial preferences they replace. Considerable litigation centers around whether they do so, tacitly ceding the argument that the priority is racial diversity, rather than equal opportunity for students of all races and ethnicities.

Racial preferences should be banned, and affirmative action for underprivileged candidates should not be a back-door. Instead, universities should address the astonishing statistic that students from families in the bottom economic 25% comprise only three percent of enrollment in the most competitive schools, while those from the top 25% comprise 72%. Because black and Latino households have, on average, less than 15% of the net worth and 68% of the average income of white households, it is reasonable to infer blacks and Latinos will disproportionately benefit from affirmative action for impoverished and low-income students.

Despite widespread use by universities and the almost universal endorsement of our elites, Americans overwhelmingly recognize that race-based preferences are per se wrong. By contrast, a 2016 Gallup poll found that 61% of adult Americans favor consideration of family economic circumstances in admissions decisions.

Though many of the objections to racial preferences apply to nominally race-neutral affirmative action programs designed to achieve results consistent with racial preferences, none of these objections would apply to well-crafted affirmative action for poor and low-income students, because, as described below, these programs do not require preferences. Except perhaps initially, as the methodology is refined, no unqualified applicant will replace a more qualified applicant.

Children who live in poor and low-income homes typically must overcome obstacles that more affluent children do not regularly confront. They may attend inferior schools, or have less time for homework because of jobs or chores. They are less likely to benefit from two actively involved parents and receive, on average, less guidance and assistance.

In 2016, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, America’s leading provider of scholarships for low-income, high-achieving students, published its report, True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities. The Cooke Foundation concluded that admission to 91 selective colleges is “harder for the high-achieving, low-income student than for others.” To remedy the problem, the foundation recommended selective higher education institutions institute a “poverty preference” akin to existing legacy and athletic preferences.

The Cook Foundation’s key findings included that low-income students are one-third less likely to take advanced placement courses, in part because their schools do not offer these courses. As a result, low-income students lose the extra weight awarded to AP grades in the admission process.

The Cook Foundation also found that high-achieving, low-income students are only half as likely as wealthier students to take ACT/SAT prep courses, even though prep courses can raise SAT scores by an average of about 30 points (see here and here) and private tutoring may be even more effective, particularly for students who have taken AP courses. The Cooke Foundation also found that contrary to the beneficiaries of racial preferences, high-achieving, low-income students perform on par with other students, both as to grades and graduation rates.

The Cooke Foundation report observed that most elite universities give a benefit to applicants for early decision on the assumption that they are more committed to attend the selected college. Low-income applicants often cannot apply for early decision because maximizing financial aid is important to their decisions. Giving low-income students the same adjustment as is provided to early decision applicants would eliminate the flawed inference of an enthusiasm gap.

In addition to adjusting SAT and ACT scores for lack of coaching, GPAs for lack of AP programs, homework time or tutoring, and equalizing early admission premiums, admissions offices can place value on the family obligations of economically disadvantaged children and accommodate how those obligations inhibit the child from being able to join the chess team or build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

The purposes of affirmative action for underprivileged students should be outreach, recruitment, and the elimination of implicit bias in the data (academic and otherwise) on which admissions offices rely. Scoring should be normalized to better predict academic and future success for low and high socioeconomic applicants. Candidates then may be ranked as a single group, with the traditional goal of selecting the best qualified applicants who are most likely to succeed. Greater economic and racial diversity will result, with particular advantages for underprivileged blacks and Latinos who are often overlooked by existing racial preferences.

The goal should be the highest quality class by graduation. Assessments should be made to ascertain whether overcoming adversity slows a child’s ability to reach full potential and whether underprivileged applicants whose normalized scores remain below the cut-off based on expected performance in the first year would catch up by graduation. If so, affirmative action to locate and admit those applicants and further adjustments in scoring is appropriate. These refinements might differ at different universities.

Normalizing data to improve its correlation to performance requires affirmative effort, but not a preference. Impartially improving the quality and reliability of data and the scoring process equalizes opportunities, not outcomes. Doing so is integral to American exceptionalism and to the mission of leading universities.

Typified by University of San Diego Law Professor Maimon Schwarzchild, some on the Right object that affirmative action for underprivileged candidates might fail to account for all variables and could be imperfectly implemented, thereby unduly benefiting immigrants, high-status children of professors, or public service employees. To paraphrase Voltaire, so what? Implementation will improve over time as programs are refined. Professor Schwarzchild also presumes, without evidence, that academic mismatch for racial preferences would apply to income or class-based affirmative action. If implemented as described in this article, once programs are refined, that could not occur.

Meanwhile, as epitomized by a 2016 Educational Testing Service report, many on the Left vilify affirmative action programs for low socioeconomic classes adopted in states that have outlawed racial preferences for failing to replicate proscribed racial preferences. This racist tripe distressingly reveals that proponents of DEI would rather deliver benefits to entitled blacks whose principal burden may be stigmatization by the Woke Left than help high-achieving impoverished whites, Asians, or other ethnicities, including black children, who in overcoming adversity likely would be the first children in their families to attend college.

The elitist dismissal of poor and low-income families is brought into focus by Harvard’s 2018 Report of the Committee to Study Race-Neutral Alternatives, which grumbled that using socioeconomic status for affirmative action was unacceptable because it could result in “many non-White students [coming to Harvard] from modest socioeconomic circumstances,” as contrasted to the affluent minority students Harvard prefers to enroll. According to Harvard’s definition of economic disadvantage, more than 70% of U.S. blacks and more than 60% of U.S. Latinos are disadvantaged. In 2019, just 29% of Harvard’s black and Latino undergraduates came from disadvantaged homes.

Researchers have done little work on the best design for affirmative action for disadvantaged students. In his 1996 book, The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, Richard Kahlenberg, the leading proponent of class-based affirmative action in higher education admissions, suggested seven factors, including income below the median for the particular school. The Cooke Foundation report, co-authored by Mr. Kahlenberg, urges a less complicated approach based principally on economic need. In his work as an expert witness (for example, see here and here), Mr. Kahlenberg has advocated complex designs that include social factors beyond wealth and income.

In litigation, the focus is on showing that race-neutral preferences can be used to achieve racial diversity comparable to that obtained through racial preferences. That is not my goal. I seek to remedy implicit bias that prevents impoverished and low-income children from attending selective and elite universities in which they can succeed on par with affluent students. That requires outreach and elimination of bias, not preferences.

While I prefer the emphasis be on economic need, other factors are reasonable, particularly adding weight for single-parent households and excluding otherwise privileged children who do not suffer the disadvantages that mandate normalizing adjustments. The design should improve over time based on the principle of equalizing opportunity for equally qualified applicants. What is important is that our universities bring to an end widely unpopular, divisive, and harmful racial preferences and instead address the real failure in their admissions process.

America has derived considerable strength from the upward mobility of its people. Our universities must return to our core values by implementing affirmative action—not preferences—for underprivileged students, regardless of race.

Editor’s Note: This article originally stated that Maimon Schwarzchild is a professor of law at the University of California, San Diego. Schwarzchild is not affiliated with UCSD and is a professor of law at the University of San Diego, a private Roman Catholic institution. The article has been edited to reflect this correction.

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain


  • Kenin M. Spivak

    Kenin M. Spivak, a lifetime member of the National Association of Scholars, is founder and chairman of SMI Group LLC, an international consulting firm and investment bank. Spivak was chairman of two publishers and of the Editorial Board of the Knowledge Exchange Business Encyclopedia. He regularly contributes to National Review, The American Mind, and other publications. He received an A.B., M.B.A., and J.D. from Columbia University.

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6 thoughts on “Socioeconomic Status—The Good Kind of Affirmative Action?

  1. Well analyzed. The simple recipe for success is to work hard and give people opportunities to work hard. Whether in school or in life. Our unified goal should be to succeed as Americans, regardless of the definition, race or social economic status.

  2. “affirmative action—not preferences—for underprivileged students, regardless of race.”

    This sounds good, and perhaps is, but difficult to keep “affirmative action,” whatever that is, from slipping over into “preferences.” At some point perhaps you just have to take a gamble on individual people, and hope they succeed.

  3. I congratulate you on this one. I feel it touches on an essential issue in the conversation about equality and equity in college admissions. I’ve never been a proponent of race-based admission quotas; they appear prone to abuse and do not benefit their targets, as you note. Drop-out rates for beneficiaries are unacceptably high, in part because these students have no foundational support. Having family support, emotionally and financially, can be the difference between a student excelling in their program or dropping out.

    You touched on it lightly, but the additional cost of admission to a prestigious school extends far beyond the tuition. Things like the costs for ACT/SAT prep, AP courses, extracurriculars, tutoring, application fees, moving costs, housing, and loss of income to the household when a wage-earning child leaves are left out of the total equation. I am glad that you mentioned these extra costs and that these activities tend to be heavily weighted by schools.
    Your analysis stops just short of suggesting that some of these measures are not appropriate measures of success for admission. I believe extracurricular activities are irrelevant to school achievement unless they are directly related to the subject matter of the person’s degree. Why is volunteer work at Habitat for Humanity a greater weight than an after-school job? Why does it matter if a student was a member of the chess club or any other club?

    Discounting the equation for admissions to balance the inequities faced by socioeconomically disadvantaged students is a good idea, but, at some point, the entire equation needs to be revamped and restructured.

    My only critique is precisely what you thought it would be. Your reference to the “Woke Left” comes from nowhere and distracts from the valid point you were trying to make about how people conflate low socioeconomic status with race. I’m sure the name will appeal to certain readers; however, it came off like an out-of-place dog whistle.

  4. This trades one problem for another. Preference for single mothers penalizes couples responsible enough to stay together. Etc.

    1. I missed the part in the article where it advocated preferencing single parent households over multiparent households. Your comment seems not only to neglect the significant number of single parent households with incomes higher than multiparent households, but also assume that multiparent households are inherently responsible. Both of these erroneous positions have little bearing on the point of the article.

      1. ‘Less likely to beneft from two parents’?

        Yes, thats in there — and practical reality is that single parent is often used to define SES even though — as you note — income is often higher.

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