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If Affirmative Action is Banned, Colleges Need to Do Wealth-Based Admissions Right

Most observers expect the Supreme Court to end racial preferences in college admissions sometime this spring following oral arguments this past October in two critical affirmative action cases. Given the looming decision, universities should already be looking at a variety of new paths to diversity that don’t rely on race in order to preserve important gains in racial diversity won over the years. These should include favoring economically disadvantaged students and ending unfair preferences for the children of wealthy alumni and donors. But an especially promising approach—not yet widely employed—is to provide an admissions boost to students from families that have low (or negative) levels of wealth.

Banning of racial preferences will require selective colleges and universities that are committed to racial diversity to think creatively about how to open the doors to economically disadvantaged students, who are rarely found on today’s campuses.

Consider Harvard University, which is a subject of part of the litigation before the Supreme Court. Using racial preferences, Black enrollment has increased from 1 percent of the freshman class in the early 1960s to 15 percent today. At the same time, research finds that Harvard’s student body has about as many students from the top 1 percent by income as the bottom 60 percent. Seventy-one percent of Harvard’s Black, Hispanic, and Native American students came from the richest one-fifth of those groups.

Many selective public universities in states where racial preferences have been banned (including California and Florida) have provided a leg up to students from families with low incomes and/or low levels of education, and from disadvantaged neighborhoods and high schools. This makes sense. These programs have often been successful in promoting both economic and racial diversity.

But virtually all of these universities (with the notable exception of UCLA Law) have ignored using a family’s wealth (net assets minus debts) in the admissions process. The omission of wealth is a mistake two times over. As a matter of fairness, because more than virtually any other factor, wealth determines opportunity in America. And as a matter of promoting diversity, wealth should be used in admissions because of the huge wealth gaps between white and Black families and white and Hispanic families.

Researchers have found that wealth is even more important than income in determining opportunity in the United States. One landmark study found that parental education and wealth were more powerful predictors of college completion than race or income. The study concluded that “educational advantages are acquired through major capital investments and decisions” such as purchasing a home in a neighborhood with high-performing public schools.

Read entire article at Slate