The Affirmative Action That Colleges Really Need

Universities want to protect the status quo, because it’s easy for them.

Side picture of the stairs that lead to building with greek columns in college campus.
Tony Luong / The New York Times / ​Redux

The dirty secret of higher education in the United States is that racial preferences for Black, Latino, and Native American college students provide cover for an admissions system that mostly benefits the wealthy. The current framework of race-based preferences—which goes before the Supreme Court on Monday—is broadly unpopular, has been highly vulnerable to legal challenges under federal civil-rights laws, disproportionately helps upper-middle-class students of color, and pits working-class people of different races against one another. Major public and private universities cling to the status quo anyway, because doing so is easier financially than helping demonstrably disadvantaged students. These institutions act as if the predominant version of affirmative action is the only way to promote racial diversity, but that simply isn’t true. It’s just better for them.

Many of my friends—liberals like me—have been mystified, even horrified, that I helped the plaintiffs who are asking the Court to strike down racial preferences in college admissions. For three decades, I have worked with civil-rights groups and community leaders of color to combat housing segregation, make labor organizing a civil right, integrate New York City public schools, and curtail legacy preferences in college admissions. Yet by serving as an expert witness in litigation brought by Students for Fair Admissions, I allied myself with the conservative activist Edward Blum and a law firm that has represented Donald Trump. In district-court proceedings, I testified that racial diversity is crucial on college campuses, but also that universities can achieve it by giving a much larger admissions boost to economically disadvantaged applicants than they presently do—and without resorting to racial preferences.

Most Americans, including me, think that colleges and universities should not simply perpetuate the rampant inequities in our society. Although selective schools typically give a modest boost to disadvantaged applicants—including first-generation college students and applicants from low-income families—I believe that admissions deans should make greater allowances than they do now. Yet average Americans and elite-university officials view admissions policies in radically different ways. Many of the former imagine a meritocracy in which students who work hard to develop their talents are rewarded by admissions to selective colleges that will then help them advance in life.

Universities have a far different vision, in which no one deserves admission. Instead, an admissions committee’s job is to create an educationally optimal environment on campus. That involves recruiting top students from every racial group. Yet, colleges also want to achieve academic excellence and racial diversity as cheaply as possible, because the cost of scholarships for needy applicants competes with faculty salaries, student amenities, and other priorities.

Top universities’ rhetoric about the value of race-based affirmative action is clearly at odds with the persistence of legacy admissions, in which the children of alumni, who are disproportionately white and wealthy, are admitted at significantly higher rates than their academic performance alone would justify. Yet the two practices are entirely consistent when admissions deans act less as objective evaluators of talent than as casting directors who try to minimize their employer’s expenses and maximize its revenues. Many administrators believe that legacy preferences help persuade alumni to donate more money; that most such alumni can also pay full tuition for their children makes these students all the more valuable.

To its credit, Harvard picks classes that look like today’s racially diverse America; indeed, most undergraduates are students of color. But the school does not actually reflect America. Research by the economist Raj Chetty shows that Harvard has 15 times as many students from the richest fifth of the population as the poorest fifth. About as many students come from the top 1 percent by income as the bottom 60 percent. A multiracial aristocracy is more inclusive than an all-white aristocracy, but it is still an aristocracy. Likewise, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill claims to be “the University of the people.” Yet students in the top income quintile are 16 times as numerous on campus as those in the bottom fifth.

These schools, and many like them, have managed to create racial diversity without much economic diversity. Statistical analyses of evidence produced in the litigation show that Harvard and UNC give Black students more than twice the admissions boost that economically disadvantaged or first-generation college students receive. (At Harvard, the boost for legacy students is also much larger than for first-generation college students.) Seventy-one percent of Black, Latino, and Native American students at Harvard come from college-educated homes with incomes above the national median; such students are in roughly the most advantaged fifth of families of their own race. This is trickle-down economics.

The current system has ugly side effects. In the zero-sum game of college admissions, the overrepresentation of any group relative to its share of the population or applicant pool impedes a university’s diversity goals. So Harvard has sought ways to limit the number of Asian American students, just as it limited the number of Jewish students in the early 20th century. Harvard receives tens of thousands of applications and uses a numerical scale to compare them. On academic measures, Asian American applicants score higher on average than white, Black, or Latino applicants. Rather than setting hard quotas for Asian Americans—which would violate federal law—admissions officers have routinely rated them lower on subjective attributes such as “integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness, fortitude, empathy, self-confidence, leadership ability, maturity, or grit.”

When universities are forced to stop using race-based admissions, they find fairer ways to achieve racial diversity. After California voters approved the first statewide ban on racial preferences at public universities in 1996, institutions affected by similar measures across the country have adopted an array of progressive policies that indirectly promote racial diversity by doing more to admit socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Thankfully, the political system won’t tolerate resegregation of higher education by race. In red and blue states alike, therefore, colleges that cannot employ race-based preferences have increased financial-aid budgets, taken top-ranking students from high schools in poor communities, dropped the use of legacy preferences, and increased admission of students who transfer from community colleges. Without using race, UC Berkeley and UCLA—which, among the top 25 national universities as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, consistently have the highest percentage of students who receive federal Pell Grants—in 2021 admitted their most racially diverse classes in more than 30 years.

In its response to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, Harvard claims that a substantially larger preference for economically disadvantaged students would lead to the admission of less academically capable students. I should note that a federal district judge in Massachusetts agreed with that proposition. Yet my calculations indicate that, if the school eliminated race-based and legacy preferences while giving low-income students half of the boost it gives to recruited athletes, its mean SAT score would drop from the 99th percentile to the 98th—hardly a difference to worry about.

By zeroing in on economically disadvantaged students, affirmative-action programs can still address the effects of America’s terrible history of slavery, segregation, and redlining. The wealth gap between Black and white households, which has accumulated over generations, is enormous. Although white workers typically earn 1.6 times as much as Black workers, white median household wealth is eight times as high as Black median household wealth. Likewise, because of housing discrimination, middle-class Black families live in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates than low-income white families. Data on factors such as family wealth and neighborhood-poverty levels are available to admissions committees, which can use them to identify students who have succeeded academically despite difficult odds. Those students are disproportionately likely to be Black or Latino, but admissions policies need not even take account of their race.

Most Americans are deeply skeptical of what many selective universities are currently doing. According to an April 2022 Pew Research Center poll, 74 percent of respondents said race shouldn’t be used as even a minor factor in college admissions; majorities of all racial groups opposed such preferences. In deep-blue California, voters rejected an effort to reinstate racial preferences in admissions at public colleges by 14 percentage points in November 2020, even as they supported Joe Biden over Donald Trump by 29 points. In contrast, Americans support class-based preferences by almost two to one. (A new Washington Post poll finds that 75 percent of Americans oppose legacy preferences as well.) Colleges need not base their decisions on polls, but especially because even private colleges receive large tax subsidies, they would be unwise to simply ignore public opinion.

A Supreme Court decision striking down racial preferences could help revive multiracial progressive politics in America. For generations, right-wing politicians have sought to appeal to working-class white voters based on racial solidarity. “With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” Senator John C. Calhoun declared in 1848.

As a pure political matter, racial preferences make the job of today’s Calhouns a lot easier. They send a message that elites—including the Ivy League universities that grant racial preferences and the large corporations that endorse them—think that the most privileged Black or Hispanic student is worthier of special consideration than the poorest white or Asian student.

Partly for pragmatic reasons, many of the most influential progressive voices in the 1960s—including Martin Luther King Jr.—advocated for racially inclusive programs that would benefit disadvantaged people of all races. King rejected calls for a bill of rights for Black people in favor of a broader bill of rights for the disadvantaged. “Many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother, will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill of Rights,’” he wrote. That poor white people should be included in efforts to help downtrodden Americans build better lives was, to King, “a simple matter of justice.”

The effort to use race in admissions is well intentioned, and it suits universities’ self-interest. But as an effort to promote fairness, it has run its course. If the Supreme Court were to strike down racial preferences and universities then failed to replace them with anything new, such a development would hurt the cause of racial inclusion and represent a betrayal of Black Americans in particular. But experience shows that, if forced to abandon today’s flawed system, universities instead will create something better for society: programs that will help the most vulnerable Americans of all races.