Replace the flawed affirmative action system with class-based admissions

Anna Royal

Race or socioeconomic class? There has been a decades-long debate on whether colleges should consider either factors in an applicant’s admissions process. The Supreme Court has continued to address the topic, hearing arguments in October 2022 and challenging the choices of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) in continuing race-based affirmative action.

While racism is still a large barrier to higher education, an even more prevalent barrier — especially affecting minority students — is the financial obstacle of applying and attending a college. It is problematic that many colleges aim to increase economic mobility, yet continue to make applying as a competitive applicant burdensome for lower-income students. 

Alone, the cost of applying to college is enough to deter low-income students from attending college. Basic requirements of schools, such as the application fee and standardized testing fees, are all north of $50 each. To be a more compelling applicant, students may have to pay even more for Advanced Placement (AP) tests, which are upwards of $97 per test. Opting for private college counseling is, on average, $200 per hour and can cost thousands in total, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). Low-income students are put at a significant disadvantage when trying to meet the requirements of an extensive college application, especially at a competitive school.

Illustration by Lauren Poulin

It is necessary that colleges level out the playing field and offer some sort of compensation or “leg up” for students of low socioeconomic status. While fee waivers are available to low-income students, they must meet certain requirements, such as being eligible for free lunch programs or being part of a family receiving public assistance. Without giving a fair advantage to all students needing financial aid, the already extreme wealth gap will continue to grow, keeping low-income earners in a cycle of poverty.

Additionally, race-based affirmative action tends to unintentionally generalize groups of people into categories that do not necessarily apply to them, assuming certain things about them based only on their race. For instance, affirmative action applies to wealthy minorities and those with smaller ethnic-minority backgrounds, who can appear “white-washed.” Even if these college applicants are not faced with the significant challenges of those with lower economic status or more obvious racial obstacles, they will still benefit. 

Doctor and author Andrew Lam interviews Yale University applicants and notices how affirmative action has generalized groups, such as Asian students, into a high-achieving stereotype. Colleges such as Harvard University have been accused of setting caps on the number of Asian students they are willing to admit because of studies showing these students obtain higher test scores, affecting lower-income Asians as well. In a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) interview, Lam states, “Truly disadvantaged Asians get lumped in with model minority Asians. There are economically disadvantaged students from Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong communities. There are Pakistani and South Asian students whose parents scrape by working 100-hour weeks. Affirmative action has the potential to hurt these individuals most of all.”

While race-based affirmative action is a beneficial way to help increase diversity and make college admissions fairer to minority races, it is plagued with flaws that could be resolved by considering one’s socioeconomic status instead. According to Pew Research, the majority of Americans of color share this view on affirmative action. A survey in 2019 shows 65 percent of Hispanics, 62 percent of Blacks and 58 percent of Asians agree that race should not be a factor in college admissions.

Many argue colleges should prioritize increasing their racial diversity, as colleges need to have racial representation, inclusion and diverse educational perspectives. This is true; however, many claim that affirmative action and quota systems are the best course of action to achieve this level of racial diversity, which has been proven to be incorrect by the experiences of many universities. With Black and Hispanic people being the most impoverished demographics in the U.S. (according to the Economic Policy Institute), an admissions factor considering economic status would undoubtedly lead to higher rates of racial diversity. 

In fact, many colleges have shown that considering economic background rather than racial background creates higher rates of racial diversity on campus. According to the New York Times, “Seven out of 10 leading public universities we examined in a 2012 Century Foundation report were able to maintain, or even increase the proportion of African-American and Latino students among their ranks, by replacing race-based preferences with strategies that target socioeconomic inequality.”

In states where affirmative action has been banned, many colleges are switching to admissions strategies based on socioeconomic status, including California. These colleges have continued to reveal the high amounts of both economic and racial diversity that these socioeconomic admissions considerations yield. According to the New York Times, “If a socioeconomic plan is designed well, it can even achieve greater levels of minority representation than a race-only program. A class-based admissions program at the University of Colorado Boulder that considers multiple socioeconomic and academic factors increased admit rates for not only low-income students but also underrepresented minorities, as compared to race-only affirmative action.”

While keeping the goal of racial diversity intertwined with the goal of economic diversity, socioeconomic-based admissions criteria can address the flaws in the current affirmative action system and ensure improved diversity on college campuses.