A reader writes:
It's amazing to me how much of this discussion focuses on trying to address class-based AA at the level of university education. What about how the relationship between property values, property taxes, and K-12 funding? Are conservatives in favor of equalizing that to even out class-based advantages in primary education, where it can have the most impact? If so, I haven't heard about it. They advocate choice, but offer little to equalize the dollar advantages many communities have.
It is a small point, but the conversation started by Beinart discusses "class-based affirmative action" without clearly defining what is meant by the term.
I get the feeling that they really mean wealth-based affirmative action; that the poor should receive some sort of benefit to help them enter the nation's elite. However, wealth and class are quite different things, and a true class-based affirmative action program might include, for instance, advantages for kids who are the first in their family to attend college, or who are from schools where few graduates attend four year colleges. I'm sure that there are many other ingenious options out there.
Of course, class is a tricky thing to define, especially in the US, which does not have the same sort of established class system you would find in the UK, let alone India (although with the America's surprisingly low levels of economic mobility, such a system could be well on the way to developing), so that might make a true class-based system hard to implement.
I am open to either class-based or wealth-based affirmative action programs, or race-based programs for that matter. Of course, part of the cost of any such system is that they are necessarily crude efforts to level a playing field, and so will inevitably leave some people unfairly treated. Nonetheless, I have faith that any well implemented affirmative action program will eliminate more unfairness than it generates.
Class-based affirmative action is already happening at most colleges - has been for a long time. I was an almost full-scholarship student at my college, and my husband's has had need-blind admissions and even full tuition payment for poor students for some time now. As colleges have become wealthier, they should be offering more scholarships.
People are clamoring for class-based affirmative action because President Reagan completely decimated the federal financial aid program in the 1980s. Universities could implement “need-blind admissions because poor and working students, regardless of race, received aid packages where grants, not loans, comprise the bulk of the aid. Reagan changed all that.
I was lucky my family was so large and we were so poor that I was able to complete a BA at a private college and my loan burden was not intolerable. But many of my classmates left a private to attend public universities and colleges. While I don’t think anyone is necessarily owed four years at a private school, I was really quite miserable when many of my friends left and I was one of the few white working class kids in my graduating class. The absence of their voices profoundly affects a campus’ discourse liberals continue to harbor disdain and conservatives, who share that contempt, use them as a proxy in their culture war battles.
Harvard, however, has done far more than similar institutions in creating a more inclusive student body. While I was no fan of Larry Summers prior to his appointment as head of Harvard, I did like that he, along with Tony Marx at Amherst, strove to have their frosh classes reflect the nation’s economic and ethnic diversity. Here’s an old article on it.