Affirmative Action at Top Schools: A Purely Upper-Middle Class Problem?

A bipartisan group of bloggers turns the race-based affirmative action debate on its head

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Between bombshell op-eds and a federal court case on college admissions, race-based affirmative action is back in the pundits' spotlight. Earlier this week, Peter Beinart joined Ross Douthat in suggesting that class-based policies at universities might be more just than those based on race.

But what if this entire debate is misguided? Could focusing on admissions policies at elite universities be the quintessence of a white, upper-middle class self-absorption? That's precisely what a small, bipartisan band of bloggers is arguing. Class-based affirmative action is the right thing to do, they say. But it's also largely irrelevant.

  • Why Are We Even Having This Debate? Matt Yglesias, though he's "open" to the idea of class-based affirmative action, leads the charge: "The presumption that you can solve any significant problem of social justice in America by fiddling with Ivy League admissions policies is dead wrong, as is the idea that the main challenge poor people of any race face education-wise is that they might not get into an elite college." Those shut out of Harvard due to an unjust affirmative action policy wind up at Columbia, he points out, and the poor have more pressing concerns: "this is a made-up social problem."
  • Focusing on the Wrong Level of Education "[V]ery few kids are going to go to Harvard," agrees The Atlantic's Megan McArdle, "no matter how you play around with their admissions formula. Good primary education, on the other hand, could help millions." This is a case of the upper-middle class agenda hijacking a debate.
  • The One Case for Caring At the National Review, Reihan Salam agrees that "we'd be far better off if we invested more attention in improving the quality and efficiency of K-12 education and non-traditional post-secondary options." That said, he points out that if the controversial "mismatch hypothesis" is correct, affirmative action is hurting its supposed beneficiaries: students getting preferential treatment during admissions wind up getting lost at an institution they are ill-equipped to navigate.
  • A Better Discussion: State Schools Mike Konczal takes issue with what he sees as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's position: he "seems to want to expand access for poor whites to elite schools because they'll go on to elite institutions and it'll produce a better elite." This is an odd notion of meritocracy, Konczal says.
[F]rankly I could care less who goes to the most elite schools. What freaks me out is the mass disintegration, defunding and private-market takeover of state colleges. By the time this recession is over more state colleges will assume their students will take on a larger debt ... To me ... meritocracy is about ... not a rich mosaic among the top 1% of Americans, but the public empowering all those capable of educating themselves and integrating themselves into the formal economy as equals provided for by the public. A broad middle class and the mobility that comes with it.
  • So: Why Do Liberals Care About Affirmative Action?  Reviewing Yglesias's position, conservative Robert Stacy McCain admits that, "strangely enough," he agrees. But here's his question, then:
Why, as a general rule, do liberals rush to the barricades to defend affirmative action programs for minorities, if such programs are a response to "a made-up social problem" and if admission to elite universities doesn't actually help the supposed beneficiaries?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.