A Better Way to Diversify Colleges

If private colleges banded together, they could collectively offer spots to the top two students in every one of the nation's 29,705 public high schools.

From top left, clockwise: students at George Washington University (Reuters); the campus at Swarthmore College (AP), a student at Washington University of St. Louis (Reuters), a Millsaps College psychology major (AP)

Affirmative action in higher education is once again on the chopping block. The United States Supreme Court is poised to issue its ruling in the Fisher v. Texas case, in which a white student complained that she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race. Much as with earlier landmark decisions, the Court is likely to chip away at any program that explicitly puts more than the lightest thumb on the scale in favor of minorities.

For many of us in higher ed, there's a collective gulp when we consider what's at stake. We've seen affirmative action's benefits--imperfect, yet crucial for generations of students. But this potential sea change also presents a rare chance for those of us at private colleges and universities to consider how we might contribute to preserving the values and advantages of affirmative action into the future.

Public systems have typically been fastest off the mark when major policy decisions have limited race as a factor in admissions. Several states launched "percentage plans," which guarantee the top 4-20% of graduates in each high school access to a state university. Because high school districts in the United States are shamefully segregated by race and ethnicity, this merit-based strategy automatically fosters racial diversity at the same time as it increases representation across a range of socio-economic and geographic backgrounds.

This seems like a win-win, and in some ways these programs have been successful. But only a few states have them, leaving teenagers outside of California, Florida, or Texas on the sidelines. Moreover, state legislatures have squeezed funding to higher education for years, which means that even when kids are accepted, public university tuition may be out of their reach.

Private institutions may not seem an obvious solution to these problems. They have been much slower to react collectively to the shifting affirmative action terrain than public systems, and unlike state universities, they are not bound to serve the taxpayers. And if you are looking for an affordable degree, the private sector would seem an odd place to start your search.

But if you're in the private system, you know something most Americans don't--many private colleges and universities offer generous need-based financial aid packages to talented students with limited resources. They do this for minorities, but not just for minorities. My first year in college, a friend from Spanish Harlem proudly announced to our large dining table that his family paid the lowest amount of tuition on campus--a few hundred dollars. To everybody's disbelief, I revealed that my family paid nothing at all.

I am white and look middle class, so I didn't fit the profile of an affirmative action kid. But my family had no money and Brown took me anyway, just as they took my friend. We both benefited, and so did the students who had no idea that socio-economic diversity came in every color.

This is another key fact about private institutions: They care deeply about affirmative action's values. Admissions officers try their hardest to recruit a student body that includes underserved populations, but they typically are not as successful as their counterparts at public universities. They often claim that their greatest difficulty is in encouraging applications from difficult-to-reach candidates.

If private colleges and universities formed a nationwide consortium, they could build a "percentage plan" of their own without the constraints imposed by state legislatures. Just as within large state systems, private institutions run the gamut nationally from prestigious research universities to more locally oriented bodies. If they joined together, they could collectively offer guaranteed admission, need-based financial aid, and support programs to the valedictorian and salutatorian of every one of the 29,705 public high schools in the United States.

59,410 graduates would be a lot to absorb. But some wouldn't attend college, others would opt for state institutions, many would be able to pay their own way based on standard financial need calculations, and a proportion would have been admitted to private universities even without this program.

The remainder could be distributed across universities according to an algorithm of student interest, university resources, university preferences, and geographic considerations, much as they are in state systems with percentage plans.

These students would be instant ambassadors in their hometowns. They would demonstrate that access to a wide variety of colleges exists in every corner of the United States, demystifying the private system. Strong students who are not at the very top of their class would compete hard to get there, and would learn that a university degree was both achievable and affordable even if they did not make it into the guaranteed program. These students would likely apply in greater numbers to many more types of schools than ever before, and would be compelling candidates.

A program like this would generate tremendous diversity on campuses across the nation, to everyone's advantage. Student beneficiaries would not bear the traditional affirmative action stigma, because they would have earned their passage to college by having bested the competition on their home turf. Private institutions would draw in kids from different backgrounds, and the lesser-known schools could generate national name recognition without having to launch a Division 1 football program. Public universities may also be pressured to increase affordability and access to their own campuses to compete more effectively for these top students.

This proposal requires resources, as well as cooperation across institutions that often see themselves as rivals rather than as allies. These hurdles are real, but they are not insurmountable.

Wealthier colleges and universities could contribute greater amounts to a common fund by reallocating the substantial money they now inefficiently devote to flying admissions officers across the country to maximize their profile. Many of these private institutions already cooperate--and pay for--programs such as Posse and QuestBridge that match academically qualified and low-income students to elite universities.

A collective, nationwide effort by private institutions can transform the debate about affirmative action. It would preserve its benefits for many racial and ethnic minorities while opening up opportunities to more kids from rural, inner city, and working class communities than ever before.

Whatever the outcome of the current Supreme Court case, we in private educational institutions have a rare opportunity to reinvigorate affirmative action. By banding together, private colleges and universities can help ensure that diversity and fairness truly become the hallmarks of American higher education.