In 2003, the US Supreme Court gave the green light to considering race in college admissions, provided that schools evaluate individuals rather than automatically awarding points. But the constant challenges to race-based affirmative action have prompted many calls for a class-based replacement.
Wouldn't it be fairer to look at life circumstances such as poverty or a parent's limited education, without regard to skin color - and wouldn't it have the same diversifying results?
The short answer is no, according to a new book that explores such questions through an unprecedented analysis of admissions, enrollment, and graduation data at 19 elite colleges and universities. The authors do argue that American higher education would benefit from "putting a thumb on the scale" for academically prepared students with low socioeconomic status. But they project that replacing race-conscious admissions policies would cut in half the number of underrepresented minority students at the undergraduate level of these schools.
Of course, these are not subjects that lend themselves to short answers. "Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education" provides a panoramic view of everything from financial-aid policies to the history of race, class, gender, and religion in college admissions. (For those who prefer the microscopic view, its 259 pages of main text are followed by nearly as many of appendixes and notes.)
The book seems a natural extension of the 1998 analysis of affirmative action in "The Shape of the River." Both are co-authored by William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, now head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. People who strongly oppose race- or class-based affirmative action on ideological grounds aren't likely to be persuaded. But the authors make a compelling case for relying on evidence instead of anecdote - and continuously updating and reevaluating that evidence - to set the future course for our revered system of higher education.
The authors give an A or an A-plus to US graduate schools and an A-minus to undergraduate programs for overall excellence, but they are concerned about maintaining that status in the competitive global environment: American higher education "runs the risk of losing its preeminent position unless it can help much larger numbers of students from poor families and from minority populations to participate and succeed...."
Changes at much earlier stages of education are needed to ensure that more students are prepared for college. The authors' analysis found, for instance, that children from high-income families were six times as likely as their low-income counterparts to be in the pool of credible applicants at selective colleges. And children who had a college-educated parent had even better chances. Improvements in the pre-K-12 system aren't likely to kick in quickly, however, so the authors dwell more on steps that colleges could take now to improve both equity and excellence.
These elite schools - some of the Ivy League, highly selective liberal-arts colleges, and top-notch state universities - would do well to consider giving some positive weight to low-income students, Bowen and his Mellon colleagues argue. For students who managed to score well on the SATs and decided to apply, their rates of admissions, performance, and graduation were virtually the same as their more advantaged peers.
Granted, not all schools have such deep wells of highly qualified applicants, but these 19 admit only about half of the low-income applicants who score high on the SATs. If these students were given an admissions advantage similar to that enjoyed by children of alumni, the research shows, their presence on college campuses would increase from 11 percent to 17 percent without any reduction in admission standards.
By contrast, both "legacy" admissions and advantages for recruited athletes should be scaled back, the authors argue. They have a role in furthering colleges' goals, but at their current level the "costs," in terms of both excellence and equity, are out of proportion to the benefits.
In their look at the landscape of financial aid, they acknowledge that state merit-aid programs such as Georgia's HOPE scholarships are politically popular and give incentives for students to apply for both college and financial aid. But they are troubled that the trend in recent years has been toward aid that benefits higher-income students rather than those who need it most.
Private schools don't all have the luxury of need-blind aid that top schools enjoy, but merit awards should be used judiciously there too, they suggest, to maintain enough resources for needs-based aid.
American higher education couldn't have come this far without the "massive base of college-eligible students" that started to build by the early 1900s. Organized efforts to broaden that base need to continue, the authors conclude, not only because it will improve individuals' prospects for lifetime earnings, but also because the technology-centered economy needs more home-grown human capital.
• Stacy A. Teicher is on the Monitor staff.