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Why Harvard Should Support Class-Based Affirmative Action

By Sarzah Yeasmin
Sarzah Yeasmin is a graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

During this time of the year, the bulletin boards by Harvard Yard are usually brimming with multi-colored posters. Advertisements range from themed dances to event announcements, from calls for research study participants to auditions. This year, the boards stand barren with meager posts on organic chemistry tutoring and saxophone lessons. A few yards further, beyond the University’s high walls, men with bohemian beards, blankets, and help signs sit by the campus center singing or playing chess. Harvard’s high walls not only separate the University from its homeless neighbors, but also from the non-affluent students who otherwise could attend.

Amid the pandemic, the school welcomed a new class onto its campus — one that reflects the enormous strides Harvard has made on racial diversity. The Class of 2024 includes record numbers of Black and Asian American students. However, as usual, students from affluent households and private schools are overrepresented. The student bodies in selective colleges do not reflect the population of high achievers, who are dispersed across income brackets. Admissions practices inclined towards accepting students from the top income quartile produces sustained inequality — which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19.

Harvard can respond to these inequities. It can be a catalyst in generating intergenerational mobility for students with acute needs and particularly in the era of Zoom classes. To do so Harvard must expand on its commitment to diversity by eliminating legacy admissions, ignoring family financial contributions in admissions considerations, and most importantly, establishing quota-based affirmative action for class. The quota can be based on household income brackets, so that, for example, 1 percent of the student body would come from the top one percent.

Why should Harvard do this? Because of its own long-standing commitment to diversity, as reiterated in its compelling legal brief in its high-profile admissions trial, which Harvard won. The purpose of affirmative action is to have a student body that represents the diversity of the nation — diversity defined not just by race, but by class, region, sexual orientation, and other important facets of people’s identities. Class-based admissions would complement current race-based affirmative action and further Harvard’s goals of diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

Coronavirus is not need-blind, and neither is education. Nor are either equalizers. The supposedly neutral meritocratic system does not deserve veneration when we examine the glaring but overlooked disparities that are created by current admissions practices.

“Merit” is not earned, but passed down as privilege. Wealthier parents’ children tend to have higher incomes post-college. This merit cycle sustains an admissions system based on inheritance, often relegating poorer students to lower resourced community colleges (if they attend college at all), mirroring segregation in other segments of society and restricting intergenerational mobility. In this struggling economy, limiting world-class education to a higher socioeconomic group would lead to even larger class and racial inequities.

Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits, in his book “The Meritocracy Trap,” notes that more students at Harvard and Yale come from households in the top one percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom 50 percent. This statistic raises eyebrows: Is merit concentrated in the students from the top one percent of all households?

Even with the current system of affirmative action, minority students, not just white students, at Harvard largely hail from wealthy households. Are wealthy students of color smarter than economically disadvantaged students of color? The singular focus on race in affirmative action disproportionately benefits the most privileged among the minority, too.

Harvard can escape this trap by implementing class-conscious admissions policies. The school could thus make a strong commitment to welcoming students from lower-income brackets with generous financial aid. Administrators may object to this policy for financial reasons, citing the pragmatism in admitting affluent students, but money alone cannot be a driving force in determining institutional priorities at the world’s richest university.

Higher education institutions should strive for class diversity. With the largest endowment of any university, Harvard is best suited to answer this call for change and set a new trend. It is time that universities take economic diversity seriously so that students from all walks of life are fully represented in higher education.

Sarzah Yeasmin is a graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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