Look To Class: A Solution For Affirmative Action

It was hard to miss the clarion call for class based affirmative action seen in the pages of The New York Times the past few weeks. Starting with a September 24 op-ed from Jerome Karabel, the UC-Berkeley sociologist, and in two articles from "The College Issue" of The New York Times Magazine the following Sunday, you might think class based affirmative action is on a roll. Indeed, a growing number of policy wonks, intellectuals, and college administrators are preaching the imperative of a bona fide policy of class based affirmative action in college admissions. Karabel calls the stunningly meager number of low-income students enrolled at selective colleges a "national scandal" and prescribes a policy of class based affirmative action to address this national embarrassment.

In one of the Magazine articles, Columbia humanities professor Andrew Delbanco chronicles the role of the modern university in American society, and not surprisingly low-income students and class based affirmative action is brought up once again. Delbanco sees higher education as a primary engine of social mobility and certainly it serves as a founding ethic of education in the United States. With suggesting that class based affirmative action is moving beyond just an idea he makes passing reference to a seminal work on the topic by invoking the catch phrase from Equity and Excellence in Higher Education, a book co-written by William Bowen, the former president of Princeton. In this important book "a thumb on the scale" or, in other words, class based affirmative action is suggested as the remedy to brining more qualified low-income applicants to selective campuses.

Rounding out the Times coverage is an article titled "The New Affirmative Action", about UCLA's in attempt to bring more underrepresented minorities to the campus. In a state where Affirmative Action was outlawed in 1996 by Proposition 209, race conscious admissions is simply illegal and underrepresented minorities at most select University of California campuses are sparse in number. This is where class based affirmative action can make a difference by giving colleges and universities the right-of-way to recognize the vast array of challenges that come with growing up low-income in American society and tip the scale in favor of more low-income applicants. With this kind of policy in place, and with the significant overlap between race and poverty, UCLA could attain ambitious diversity goals by targeting low-income underrepresented minorities still in high school. To boot, a 2005 New York Times poll shows that nearly 85% of Americans favor preferences based on socioeconomic status.

Looking around the country various higher education institutions have already taken an "affirmative" position on low-income applicants. Harvard has the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, UNC-Chapel Hill as the Carolina Covenant, and Amherst College has their very own President, Anthony Marx, making the case for low-income students with impassioned speeches. With these institutions we get glimpse of why enrolling low-income students at select colleges and universities, and non-select institutions for that matter, must become a national priority.

At Harvard it's about the renewing the remnants of the American Dream and equal educational opportunity as an ethic. At UNC-Chapel Hill it's more about the future of North Carolina, perhaps simply a moral of doing the right thing, by ensuring low-income students it's not about where they are from or their ability to pay, rather it's about their future. Finally, at Amherst it's getting back to the roots of the institution's founding to educate the "indigent young men of piety and talents" and reassertion of civic duty of an educational institution to educate members from all strata of society. In essence each of these institutions has America's uncertain future at mind and, ultimately, an equally valuable vision of how to create a stronger democracy as we continue to proceed into the 21st century.

Karabel is right: the lack of low-income students enrolled at select institutions of higher education is scandalous. But with a solution there's a duty to take the next step, one that realizes the promise of class based affirmative action by instituting it as policy. Universities need it, Americans like it, and Democracy was made for it.