With that in mind, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation today will call on schools to admit more low-income students and outline a series of steps schools could take to reduce educational opportunity gaps, arguing that focusing on income could result in as much and even more racial diversity than straight affirmative action because Latinos and blacks are disproportionately likely to be poor.
“This is a very narrowly drawn decision,” Harold Levy, the executive director of the foundation, told The Atlantic, “and while I’m very pleased at the outcome, I don’t think anyone can take great comfort that race-conscious affirmative action is here to stay.”
Levy pointed out that income is an arena where admissions officers still have discretion, and crucially, it will not be questioned in court. While Levy certainly isn’t against affirmative action, his foundation works specifically to support low-income students, and he thinks considering finances and not race is more palatable to both conservatives and liberals, and thus more defensible in the long-run. He pointed to the fact, outlined in a report the foundation released earlier this year, that just 3 percent of students at elite colleges in the country come from the poorest 25 percent of families, while 72 percent come from the richest 25 percent. “It’s not what America is about,” Levy said of the discrepancy.
In the new recommendations, the foundation urges schools to make the application process easier to navigate and to clarify, particularly to low-income families, that financial aid may make the real cost of attending far lower than the listed price. It also calls on colleges to reach out to local schools and nonprofits to identify low-income prospective students and to invite them to campus to experience college life. Once young people have applied, the foundation wants colleges to avoid making admissions decisions based on which students can afford to pay full price, and to give aid based on need and not on merit, which tends to help wealthier students who have had access to more opportunities that show up in higher test scores and extracurriculars.
Finally, the foundation asks schools to reconsider admissions factors that disadvantage poor students and to recognize which barriers students have overcome. For instance, a poor kid who is every bit as capable as succeeding in college as a rich kid might have lower SAT scores because he couldn’t afford a prep class and could only take the test once. Schools might rethink how they factor SAT scores into the admissions process. Schools could also get rid of athletic scholarships and legacy admissions, the latter of which studies suggest doesn’t actually increase alumni donations.
But would focusing on income really result in as much racial diversity as focusing on race? It’s a complicated question and different researchers have arrived at very different answers. The short answer seems to be: it depends.