Affirmative Action Needs to be Based on Income

The recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling to strike down a Michigan constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2006 that banned affirmative action in the admissions process of the state's public universities has brought integration issues back into debate. The court decided that the law infringed upon minorities’ right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment and restructured the state’s constitution to the detriment of minorities. This decision is likely to find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 2003 the consideration of race in public university admission decisions was found to be constitutional – with certain limits.

Affirmative action is an honorable component to college admissions; it opens doors for those less fortunate and increases diversity on college campuses. But admission standards based solely on race (i.e. quotas or point systems) are wrong, as they leave many acceptable candidates on the doorstep pining to get accepted to college.

If affirmative action is going to be prevalent in the admissions practices of publicly funded universities, then the programs need to shift their focus from race-driven equality to socioeconomic equality. Everyone should be given an equal chance at going to college, not just those underrepresented on the census count.

Most Americans agree with this notion. In 2003 a Newsweek poll found that 65% of people expressed their preference for income-based affirmative action as opposed to 26% for racial affirmative action programs. This feeling still holds true nearly a decade later.

The driving factor behind disparity on college campuses is no longer race but socioeconomic status. Those coming from an underprivileged background are less likely to attend college, let alone succeed. According to economists Stephen Rose and Anthony Carnevale, "... students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile of Americans were 25 times less likely than wealthy Americans to enroll in the most selective colleges ..."

According to the study, only 3% of college freshman come from the poorest quartile while the richest make up 74% of the student body.

Affirmative action admission policies do provide a better opportunity for enrollment for minorities and students who may not normally have a chance to go to college. In 2008, a study conducted by UCLA found that black and Hispanic admission rates dropped significantly at the University of California, Berkley after California voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, banning universities from considering race, gender, and ethnicity in their admission decisions.

But, given these chaotic economic times, providing assistance to only a small piece of the pie does little to aid the underprivileged.

Though Michigan’s law did ban the consideration of race, gender, and ethnic background in admissions decisions, it still allowed special treatment for those from an underprivileged socioeconomic background. The law just took race, gender, and ethnicity out of the equation.

A recent study on elite colleges conducted by two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, found that students who are white or Asian need a higher SAT scores to gain admission than students who are black or Latino. According to the report, minorities with lower family income have an easier time gaining admission to college, but the same can not be said for lower-class white applicants.

Affirmative action based solely on race takes into account only a small portion of the underprivileged. Socioeconomic affirmative action would aid low-income white students who also pine to go to college but cannot due to their limitations.

Yes, diversity needs to be present on college campuses and those less fortunate should be awarded the same opportunity to go to college as the rest of us, but basing admittance strictly on race, ethnicity, and gender is just another form of injustice. Socioeconomic issues are the real reason for disparity in access and achievement in college, not race. Socioeconomic affirmative action will not cure the lack of diversity on college campuses, but it will give every student an opportunity to better his/her life.

Photo Credit: Inkyhack