Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 2013 as the Supreme Court considered affirmative action in Fisher I. It discusses one of the premiere arguments raised as an alternative to race-based preferences in hiring and admission: class or socio-economic affirmative action.
By Peter Wood and Herbert London
The idea of class-based affirmative action is rapidly gaining popularity in the academy. Many of those who extol it are current or former advocates of racial preferences in higher education who believe that race-based affirmative action is doomed. Their concern arises from a combination of the overwhelming dislike of racial preferences in the general public (polls show nearly 75 percent of Americans oppose such preferences) and the likelihood that Supreme Court decisions will make it much more difficult for colleges and universities to continue to employ racial preferences.
The argument is that class-based preferences will be both more popular and better able to withstand legal challenge. Both points may be true, but that doesn’t make class-based preferences a good idea.
Class-based preferences are a public policy experiment the United States would do better to avoid. What the nation needs is fairness and transparency in academic standards. The same standards should apply to all in admission to college.
Americans uphold the principle that in most circumstances we would rather compete as individuals on the basis of our ability than be treated as representatives of some group. This principle is vividly on display in many contexts of American life. We expect our Olympic competitors to win their places by outperforming others. We expect our professional sports teams to be made up of those who have won the privilege through superior talent. We hold the same regard for individual excellence in the arts, science, medicine, engineering, sales, and in most if not every aspect of business.
Group preferences, of course, are not totally alien to American life. Ethnic favoritism is as old as our founding colonies, and indeed a good deal older. That’s because it is part of human nature, woven in by millions of years of evolution, for kindreds to favor their own over those perceived to be unrelated. It is a distinctive and hard-won achievement for a civilization to overcome this kind of ethnic favoritism, and victory over it may not be permanent. People can always revert to treating “their own kind” with a degree of generosity denied to “the others.”
Since its founding the United States has made fitful progress toward realizing the ideal enunciated in the Declaration that “All men are created equal.” The abolition of the slave trade, emancipation, the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, the full integration of the armed services, and the Civil Rights Act are benchmarks of that progress. But there have been reversions to ethnic favoritism as well, and in our times much of that reversion has rationalized itself as the pursuit of “diversity.” The diversity doctrine is ethnic favoritism under a cloak of fair-mindedness. Instead of declaring a preference for in-group solidarity, it offers itself as a way of overcoming the legacy of past forms of ethnic discrimination. The idea is that new regime of group preferences (carried out with virtuous intent) can offset and reverse the invidious effects of the older regime of group preferences (carried out with discriminatory intent). Inclusion supposedly would replace exclusion.
More than thirty years of experience with the diversity doctrine, however, has taught Americans that the new regime is no more virtuous than the old one. Every act of “inclusion” on the basis of race or ethnicity is, inevitably, also an act of exclusion of someone else on the basis of race or ethnicity. The only way out of this quandary is the plain one we have known, in principle, from the beginning. Hard as it may be, we should treat one another as individuals, not as members of racial or ethnic categories. The temptation to tribalize may be written deep into our human nature, but we are free to defy that temptation. And if we aspire to be a genuinely just society, that’s what we must do.
How does this bear on the new (or at least newly popular) idea that we should maintain a regime of group preferences, but switch from preferences based on race and ethnicity to preferences based on “class?”
First, we should be concerned that the switch may be, in practical terms, a subterfuge—a way of keeping racial preferences in place by relabeling them. That possibility lurks in the vagueness of the concept of “class.” It is a sociological abstraction with a very ambiguous relationship to American life as we actually live it. The vast majority of Americans consider themselves “middleclass” regardless of their income. The very poor make up a “class” not in the sense of shared interests, identity or culture but by the judgment of outsiders who often have their own ideological agenda. The “working class” is a more of a political designation favored by some unions and political activists than by any distinguishable segment of the population. Are self-employed blue-collar tradesmen “working class” or entrepreneurs?
“Class-based affirmative action” would be let loose among these sorts of ambiguities with the result that, of necessity, it would be up to the administrators of such preferences to set the definitions and decide the applications. We could well find ourselves with a freshly painted version of the current system of racial preferences. It would have a new name and some strategic adjustments on the margins but like the existing system it would elevate group identity over individual merit. We know from long experience with race-based affirmative action that a key result has been the rise of campus diversicrats who wield considerable power over key decisions even beyond actual admissions. The diversicrats are not preparing to abandon the field, regardless of public disdain for their activities or legal impediments. Class-based affirmative action will give them another tool to continue their dubious work.
Second, “class-based affirmative action” would leave in place—indeed it would validate—the idea that admission to college is a social good that is best guided by “experts” whose job it is to override academic standards in favor of steps intended to reshape American society. Admission to colleges and universities ought to be a competition based on ability, ambition, and self-discipline, not a judgment left to administrators who have their own, inevitably political vision of a better way to distribute access to higher learning.
To be sure, allocating admission on the basis of ability, ambition, and self-discipline is not a simple and straightforward task. All three are qualities that can be difficult to discern accurately in a seventeen year-old student. Standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT can help, as can other measures of competence and achievement, such as high school GPAs. Application essays can help. Self-selection helps, too. The most able and ambitious students often put themselves forward. But even in the best of circumstances, college admissions officers must make complex judgments on the basis of quite limited information.
The situation is made even more complex because those admissions officers are not just sorting through applicants for a single purpose. They are also attempting to recruit a college class that will match the full range of a college’s academic and extra-curricular programs, including computer science majors, student newspaper editors, and cross-country runners. The extra-curricular, usually in the form of talent in sports, can sometimes trump academic standards, and though the result is sometimes benign, it often leads to problems on campus.
Colleges and universities also have distinctive characters that do not translate into a simple spectrum of gradations of merit. Some exist to serve students in particular cities or states; some serve students who adhere to a particular religious tradition; some uphold distinctive pedagogies or curricula and need to find students who have the right dispositions and interests.
For all these reasons it would be pointless to argue that all college admissions be made strictly on merit. But allowing that academic standards are imperfectly upheld even when it comes to individuals seeking admission to college on the basis of a wide variety of talents, some of them not so academic, is not the same as creating a system of preferences based on no particular talent. Class is not a qualification for college, and class-based affirmative action would turn it into something to be valued in its own right: so much weight for actual intellectual ability; so much weight for sheer determination; so much weight for proven capacity to stay focused and work hard;—and so much additional weight because an admissions official deems the student to belong to a “social class” that is under-represented.
Aid, Not Preference
Third, “class-based affirmative action” confuses the difference between admission to college and financial aid to attend college. Students who have the ability, ambition, and self-discipline to succeed should indeed have the opportunity to pursue a college degree. The missing ingredient for many is financial resources. Many colleges and universities are enormously expensive and even more modestly priced public institutions are beyond the range of affordability of students from impoverished backgrounds. There are well-established answers to this obstacle in the form of grants and scholarships. We can continue to offer students this financial aid, and indeed colleges and universities can choose to increase it without “class-based affirmative action.”
The difference is that class-based affirmative action would treat students in the designated class as deserving of not just financial aid but also the dubious benefit of admission according to lower standards. Being admitted on the basis of lower standards we now know as a matter of fact produces a “mismatch” problem, i.e. students find themselves in over their heads in an academic community in which most students are far better suited to the level of academic demands. In a different setting better matched to their abilities, they could thrive. We ought not to ring yet another variation on this unhappy history of pretending that we do a favor to students by putting them in an academic context in which their chances for success are diminished rather than enhanced.
Financial aid for qualified students from impoverished backgrounds is a very good idea. Preferential admission for such students, however, is very different and it is a bad idea. We should not let the proponents of “class-based affirmative action” confuse the two.