Jae C. Hong / AP

Many proposals for addressing school segregation seem pretty small, especially when compared to the scale and severity of the problem. Without the power of a court-ordered desegregation mandate, progress can feel extremely far off, if not altogether impossible. Some even believe—understandably though mistakenly—that no meaningful steps can be taken to integrate schools unless housing segregation is resolved.

But a new theory from Thomas Scott-Railton, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, provides reason to believe there are still new ways to think about this issue. Railton’s approach does something that’s all too rare in education-policy debates: He takes what are normally viewed as discrete issue areas—K–12 segregation, college admissions, and the lack of diversity at top universities—and says, what if those can all be addressed together? What if, in fact, it’s impossible to address them apart? Scott-Railton’s proposal, which he published in the Yale Law & Policy Review, is to reduce K–12 segregation by reforming the college-admissions process.

Scott-Railton began thinking about this last fall, after listening to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reporting on This American Life about school segregation in the St. Louis metropolitan area. The radio broadcast featured wealthy white parents in a St. Louis suburb distressed by the prospect of black students from a neighboring town enrolling in their public schools. The black children’s district had recently lost its accreditation due to poor academic performance. (It was the same district that Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by police in August 2014, had graduated from.) If a Missouri school district loses its accreditation, the state permits any student enrolled to transfer to a nearby accredited one.

Packed at a school-board meeting, white parents one after another spoke out about their fears of this new incoming student population—that they’d bring increased crime, violence, and disease. And, some parents feared how the black students’ test scores might threaten their own children’s academic standing. “Once [they come] in here, will that lower our accreditation?” asked one parent, to thunderous applause.

Many of the white parents’ fears were prejudice, plain and simple. But Scott-Railton knew that the parents were right about one thing: Integrating the school could mean that the school’s rating would drop, and schools with lower ratings tend to pay a penalty in the highly competitive college process. Universities tend to give a leg up to affluent, high test-scoring suburban schools—which then incentivizes wealthier parents to seek out segregation. But what if those incentives could be changed?

And thus Scott-Railton’s idea was born: to take demographics of schools into account in college admissions—giving priority to applicants who attended schools with a certain threshold of low-income students (say, above 40 percent). In other words, admissions officers would look favorably on students who attended an economically integrated school, much as they do those who have had unusual travel experiences or outstanding extracurricular achievements.

In a nutshell, he argues, this idea would drive integration in three ways: It would create an incentive for middle class and wealthy parents to enroll their students in socioeconomically integrated schools, it would create countervailing considerations for white parents considering leaving currently integrated school districts, and it would provide an incentive for private schools to enroll more low-income students. Middle-class students would likely benefit more from Scott-Railton’s idea than low-income students, since his proposal doesn’t inherently change the financial barriers to attending college. But millions more would benefit from the increased K–12 integration, which decades of research show improves public schooling.

It wouldn’t be the first time colleges sought to change applicant behavior by altering admissions incentives. In 2016, deans and admissions officers from more than 50 elite universities signed on to a report—Turning The Tide—a first-of-its-kind effort led by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to signal that going forward, colleges will work to de-emphasize resume padding and hyper-competitive achievement, and prioritize communal values and work taking care of others. The colleges recognized that they were powerfully positioned to transmit different cultural messages to applicants and their parents.

One strength of Scott-Railton’s proposal is that colleges and universities would not have to sacrifice much to make it work. It would be relatively cost-neutral to implement, and wouldn’t require schools to accept any particular students. As he puts it, the plan operates within higher education’s “existing institutional constraints.” But that also means it would be unlikely to substantially increase campus diversity, at least initially, and for that reason Scott-Railton says his idea should not be seen as an alternative to measures like affirmative action and Pell Grants.

Nevertheless, Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy and an expert on college admissions, said one of the biggest challenges this kind of proposal faces is just institutional inertia. “A lot of this will come down to courage,” he said. “Universities get bogged down in political constraints, caught up in managing competing interests, and it can sometimes just be easier to do nothing, rather than try something new.”

But if colleges could work up the will to try it, another benefit of this idea would be that it seems to be on solid footing legally. In the wake of Supreme Court decisions that have challenged both K–12 desegregation plans and university-level affirmative-action policies, advocates for diversity have been wary of pursuing new strategies. Scott-Railton took that into account in crafting his proposal, which recommends that admissions boosts come primarily from taking the poverty level of a school—not its racial makeup—into account, and for this reason it is more likely to withstand any kind of constitutional challenge.

“My sense of his plan is that it probably threads the needle pretty effectively,” said Sam Erman, a law professor at the University of Southern California who has studied integration and affirmative action. “There are some ambiguities in the legal doctrine, but it’s hard to see how you would launch a successful attack on this idea.”

Fear that the Supreme Court would eliminate race-based affirmative action has led other scholars to propose a college-admissions focus on school or neighborhood demographics. For instance, in her 2014 book Place Not Race, law professor Sheryll Cashin proposed substituting race-based affirmative action with a geographically-based system that took segregation into account. Scott-Railton’s idea builds upon this sort of notion by focusing more explicitly on using admissions to transform the makeup of K–12 institutions.

As Erman told me, without some kind of new experiment, integration advocates shouldn’t expect much to improve. “Most of what we’ve seen implemented are ideas that nibble at the margins, that make relatively small adjustments to things that the court has already approved,” he said, noting that unless the court swings left, it’s reasonable to expect the legal constraints to narrow even more.

“This is a very smart and strategic way of dealing with what has been the overwhelming obstacle to school integration, which is white and middle-class resistance,” said Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a longtime scholar of segregation. Kahlenberg said he likes the idea not only because it creates incentives for hyper-competitive affluent families, but also because it creates a way for universities to have more students who arrive with experience navigating diverse environments. “Elite universities need more bridge-builders,” he said. “I think this is a win-win.”

While the idea remains in its infancy, some other researchers have launched efforts to develop it further. Ilona Arnold-Berkovits, an education researcher at Rutgers who also began thinking more deeply about these issues after listening to the same This American Life episode which inspired Scott-Railton, launched a website, schoolbonuspoints.org, to begin mobilizing other policy experts, researchers, and funders around this idea of voluntary incentives.

There may be room for additional development. Scott-Railton’s idea could offer a real bulwark against white flight, but it is ultimately focused on integrated schools more than the truly disadvantaged schools. If an incentive-based policy like this were to be truly successful, leaders would need to coordinate it with efforts that directly address schools where racial and economic segregation are far worse. A strategy that preserves integration in schools that are 40 percent low-income may have no impact at all in a school that’s 90 percent low-income.

Perhaps one of the strongest merits of Scott-Railton’s idea is that it advances a new way of thinking about some very old problems, and encourages thinking about two issues—K–12 integration and diversity in higher education—together, rather than apart.

“In reality, for students, it’s a seamless web,” said Kahlenberg. “One impacts the other, and it’s not really until this proposal that we’ve seen those two worlds come together.”