by Richard Kahlenberg
Yglesias argues that candidates who don’t get into Harvard are likely to end up at Columbia or Penn, a marginal difference. Every time he hears the debate over whether affirmative action, should be based on race or class, he writes, “I have to wonder why we’re having it. The presumption that you can solve any significant problem of social justice in America by fiddling with Ivy League admissions policies is dead wrong, as is the idea that the main challenge poor people of any race face education-wise is that they might not get into an elite college.”
If it were true that affirmative action in college admissions were just a distraction, then liberals have wasted an enormous amount of political capital over the fights from Bakke (1978) to Grutter (2003). But evidence suggests that where a student goes to college does in fact matter, particularly for low-income pupils.
At The Century Foundation, we’ve engaged in three major projects on the issue. In 2004, we published America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, which found, among other things, that at the most selective 146 institutions – the very institutions where affirmative action matters – 74 percent of students come from the richest quarter of the population and just 3 percent from the poorest. Earlier this summer, we published Rewarding Strivers: Helping-Low Income Students Succeed in College, which, among a number of other things, detailed how a class-based affirmative action program might work in practice. And this fall, we will be releasing Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, which challenges policies that favor the children of alumni. Was this all a waste of time?
The evidence suggests it was not. To begin with, while for upper-middle class students, the difference between attending Harvard or Penn is of course basically immaterial, for low-income students, research finds considerable “under-matching,” whereby students attend far less selective institutions than ones they're capable of succeeding in. Because elite schools don’t put much value on socioeconomic diversity, a fair number of highly qualified low-income students don’t attend selective institutions of any kind. Socioeconomic affirmative action – which involves both preferences in admissions and aggressive outreach and recruitment – can open up an entirely new world for working-class students.
Moreover, research confirms that going to a selective college or university does in fact provide considerable advantages. For one thing, wealthy selective colleges tend to spend a great deal more on students’ educations. Research finds that the least selective colleges spend about $12,000 per student, compared with $92,000 per student at the most selective schools. In addition, wealthy selective institutions provide much greater subsidies for families. At the wealthiest 10 percent of institutions, students pay, on average, just 20 cents in fees for every dollar the school spends on them, while at the poorest 10 percent of institutions, students pay 78 cents for every dollar spent on them
Furthermore, selective colleges are quite a bit better at retention. If a more-selective school and a less-selective school enroll two equally qualified students, the more-selective institution is much more likely to graduate its student.
Moreover, future earnings are, on average, 45 percent higher for students who graduated from more-selective institutions than for those from less-selective ones. Even studies that question the “value added” by selective institutions concede that for low-income students, who would otherwise lack access to professional networks, the benefits of attending selective colleges and universities are substantial.
Finally, as the U.S. Supreme Court has observed, America’s leadership class continues to come disproportionately from graduates of selective universities. According to research by political scientist Thomas Dye, 54 percent of America’s top corporate leaders and 42 percent of governmental leaders are graduates of just 12 institutions.
Does the debate over affirmative action address “the main challenge” poor people face in education? Of course not. The divide between rich and poor in our K-12 schools affects far more people. But the stakes in the affirmative action debate are real, not just because the policy makes us think hard about what we mean by meritocracy (which it does), but also because having access to great colleges and universities can transform the lives of poor and working-class individuals in meaningful ways.