Many Americans are torn about the coming Supreme Court arguments over affirmative action (Fisher v. University of Texas). On the one hand, they want colleges to be racially and ethnically diverse and acknowledge that America's history of mistreatment of minorities requires affirmative steps. On the other hand, polls suggest Americans don't like the idea of counting a student's skin color in deciding who gets ahead. Is there a way out?
Almost 50 years ago, in his book "Why We Can't Wait," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proposed a third path: a leg up for economically disadvantaged people of all races. Today, even more than when King wrote about it, poverty is the biggest impediment to equality of opportunity. A 2010 Century Foundation study found that socioeconomic disadvantages are seven times as large as racial obstacles in predicting student SAT scores, which helps explain why there are 25 times as many rich kids as poor kids on the nation's selective campuses.
A system of affirmative action in colleges that provides a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races, if well structured, can produce substantial racial diversity without resorting to the use of racial preferences that so many Americans find objectionable.
Colleges could admit academically capable "strivers," students whose grades and test scores are somewhat lower on paper but whose achievement is remarkable given the obstacles they overcame. Research finds that such students can do well at highly selective colleges. One study found that a meritocratic admission policy that also considers economic disadvantages could increase the proportion of students from the bottom economic half at selective colleges from 10 percent currently to 38 percent, and graduation rates would remain as high as they are today.
This system would grapple with America's greatest source of inequality: the growing gap between rich and poor.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of "The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action" and editor of "Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College."