Smarter Affirmative Action

Socioeconomic preference should take precedence

A recent study conducted and released by Princeton sociology professor Thomas Espenshade has unearthed alarming racial disparities in the SAT scores of those admitted to elite American universities. Epsenshade’s research suggests that Asian Americans with perfect 1600s in 1997 were being accepted into top colleges at the same rate as whites scoring 1460 and African Americans scoring 1150—a disturbing 450-point discrepancy.

These statistics underline the outsized role that the color of one’s skin plays in the college admissions process and highlight the need for a fundamental transition of American affirmative-action policies toward a socioeconomically oriented program to supplant the race-based status quo.

Granted, due to the educational rewards of a culturally diverse learning environment in which students are forced to interact with students of different life experiences, there is still room for race to be a factor in the college admissions process. However, it should cease to hold the dominant place it currently enjoys. Universities should recognize that, while race-based admissions are an effective way to guarantee a certain measure of diversity, socioeconomic-based preference is a better way to guarantee fairness and a meaningful range of experiences among their student bodies.

It should be the goal of our nation’s universities to cultivate a society in which all are granted an equal opportunity to succeed, and there are few tools more potent with which to address inequality than higher education. And while race still plays a role in determining an individual’s prospects in current American society, socioeconomic status is an even more meaningful determinant.

President Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia, for example, are far less in need of affirmative action than many white children living in poverty in the hills of Appalachia. The president himself has stated as much, declaring during the presidential campaign that affirmative action ought to operate “in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more.”

Due to its role as a leader among universities, Harvard ought to take the initiative in refashioning affirmative action along the lines of Obama’s post-racial vision. Race-based affirmative action has played an important role over the course of its four-decade existence. But socioeconomic-based affirmative action is now the more effective way to fight for social justice.


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