A Better Way to Diversify Colleges

If private colleges banded together, they could collectively offer spots to the top two students in every one of the nation's 29,705 public high schools.

colleges.pngFrom top left, clockwise: students at George Washington University (Reuters); the campus at Swarthmore College (AP), a student at Washington University of St. Louis (Reuters), a Millsaps College psychology major (AP)

Affirmative action in higher education is once again on the chopping block. The United States Supreme Court is poised to issue its ruling in the Fisher v. Texas case, in which a white student complained that she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race. Much as with earlier landmark decisions, the Court is likely to chip away at any program that explicitly puts more than the lightest thumb on the scale in favor of minorities.

For many of us in higher ed, there's a collective gulp when we consider what's at stake. We've seen affirmative action's benefits--imperfect, yet crucial for generations of students. But this potential sea change also presents a rare chance for those of us at private colleges and universities to consider how we might contribute to preserving the values and advantages of affirmative action into the future.

Public systems have typically been fastest off the mark when major policy decisions have limited race as a factor in admissions. Several states launched "percentage plans," which guarantee the top 4-20% of graduates in each high school access to a state university. Because high school districts in the United States are shamefully segregated by race and ethnicity, this merit-based strategy automatically fosters racial diversity at the same time as it increases representation across a range of socio-economic and geographic backgrounds.

This seems like a win-win, and in some ways these programs have been successful. But only a few states have them, leaving teenagers outside of California, Florida, or Texas on the sidelines. Moreover, state legislatures have squeezed funding to higher education for years, which means that even when kids are accepted, public university tuition may be out of their reach.

Private institutions may not seem an obvious solution to these problems. They have been much slower to react collectively to the shifting affirmative action terrain than public systems, and unlike state universities, they are not bound to serve the taxpayers. And if you are looking for an affordable degree, the private sector would seem an odd place to start your search.

I am white and look middle class, so I didn't fit the profile of an affirmative action kid.

But if you're in the private system, you know something most Americans don't--many private colleges and universities offer generous need-based financial aid packages to talented students with limited resources. They do this for minorities, but not just for minorities. My first year in college, a friend from Spanish Harlem proudly announced to our large dining table that his family paid the lowest amount of tuition on campus--a few hundred dollars. To everybody's disbelief, I revealed that my family paid nothing at all.

I am white and look middle class, so I didn't fit the profile of an affirmative action kid. But my family had no money and Brown took me anyway, just as they took my friend. We both benefited, and so did the students who had no idea that socio-economic diversity came in every color.

This is another key fact about private institutions: They care deeply about affirmative action's values. Admissions officers try their hardest to recruit a student body that includes underserved populations, but they typically are not as successful as their counterparts at public universities. They often claim that their greatest difficulty is in encouraging applications from difficult-to-reach candidates.

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Erik Bleich is a professor of political science at Middlebury College.

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