CHICAGO — Back when I was oblivious about what went on in underperforming public schools, I had fanciful notions that the key to encouraging social mobility was college access.
And not the kind of access that would diversify the ranks of college graduates by race, mind you, but access based on the only relatively colorblind assessment: family income.
Now that it’s becoming a popular idea — a recent editorial in The Economist declared that “affirmative-action programmes should give way to schemes to help students based on the poverty of the applicant rather than the colour of his skin” — I find that it’s a flawed, imaginary silver bullet.
I’m not the only one who’s turned on the heir to raced-based affirmative action.
In a recent Huffington Post column, “If Not Race, Then Wealth: Why Universities Should Avoid Income as Proxy for Race-Based Admissions Policy,” Alan A. Aja, along with William A. Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton, wrote: “If class is to replace race in selective college admissions, then at the very least, wealth should serve as the indicator of class status rather than income. ... [It] is a far superior measure of socioeconomic position and provides a far better class measure as proxy for race or ethnicity than income.”
Aja, a professor in the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, contends that income — and therefore the amount a family is expected to kick in for tuition as calculated for a student seeking a federal or school-based financial aid package — can be precarious and fleeting.
“’Expected family contribution’ is one of those questions that assumes a number of variables also exist at the same time: good economy, employment, a non-discriminatory labor market, etc., all of which are conditions that are more likely to favor whites,” Aja told me. “If a member of a typical white family loses their income for myriad reasons, such families are more likely to have ‘wealth’, i.e. assets of value that could be used for rainy-day necessities such as tuition support, books, etc., for a student family member, giving that student an advantage over the typical black or Latino student who has less wealth. By using wealth, you assess the actual need in more effective ways as opposed to income.”
Agreed. As we crawl our way out of the lingering after-effects of the recession, no one could argue that whites aren’t doing better on most financial measures compared to Hispanics and blacks.
Still, even Aja has concerns about the repercussions of using either wealth or income in determining preferred admission into universities.
“We’re trying to use a financial measure as an imperfect proxy for class, which really can’t be adequately measured,” Aja said. “Yet, it still doesn’t address the issue that is fundamental to both the attainment and the intergenerational transfer of wealth, which is race.
“In fact, in a scenario where income or wealth is taken into account in admissions, we could see even fewer black and Latino students on campuses because there are simply more white people in the United States than everyone else — which is why I believe we still need race-based affirmative action.”
And that’s where Aja and I part ways.
Sure, we both agree that income-based affirmative action could have a negative effect on the number of minority students entering into college. But he goes on to lament that such a situation would present “a fundamental question: Do we, as a nation, want our kids to be in highly segregated institutions?”
Neither of us wants that. Yet the reality for too many families, mine included, is that we already live in that nation. Millions of poor students in America attend underperforming neighborhood schools where they are relegated to interact only with members of their own race and a slight minority of equally under-resourced white students.
After seeing the heart-wrenching struggles and failures of countless first-generation college students who had a leg up in getting into a college or university because of their race or income, I’ve come to believe that simply expecting universities to provide access on such measures is a false promise.
Relying on universities to diversify their populations this way lets them appear to be progressive, despite poor graduation rates for these students. Unfortunately that lulls the rest of society into the fantasy that it’s all right to allow our K-12 educational system to keep graduating countless high school students who aren’t prepared to gain admission into — much less succeed in — college on their own merits.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.