Try Wealth-Based Affirmative Action

Poverty, more than race itself, holds kids back. So schools should give more preference to students from impoverished backgrounds

By Lewis Braham

The Supreme Court's June 23 ruling on the University of Michigan's admissions system was intended to provide a clearer roadmap for affirmative action. Instead, it turns on its head a system intended to protect people of color from discrimination.

The court determined that Michigan's points-based admissions system for undergraduates, which gave a boost to minorities, was unconstitutional on the grounds that it was unfair to white applicants. Yet, it upheld the Michigan Law School's preference system, ruling that in a multifaceted admissions system that includes other factors such as region and background, its O.K. to give some special preferences based on race.


  In essence, the court issued a qualified endorsement for affirmative action. To my mind, however, the ruling raises a larger issue: How can universities and, by proxy, corporations, promote diversity without affirmative action? I would argue that the answer lies not in race, but in addressing certain economic inequalities that are more complex than just skin color.

Poverty, not race, is the greatest obstacle facing minority students today. Students in poor neighborhoods attend impoverished public schools, no matter what their skin color or ethnicity. In some states up to half of a school district's funding comes from property taxes. As a result, students living in wealthy neighborhoods, where property values are high, have more teachers and better educational facilities than poor students do. So rich students, the majority of whom are white, have an academic edge.

The solution? Create a wealth-based affirmative-action program. Universities seeking to diversify their student bodies could screen candidates based on income and assets, showing preference to the poorest students. Since a higher percentage of minority students live below the poverty line than white Americans, this policy would help correct some of the disparities in admissions. And it would allow so-called legacy preferences to remain in place. This controversial practice gives a leg up in the admissions process to students who are the progeny of wealthy alumni. President George W. Bush was a beneficiary of this system.


  Such a standard is better than the "race-neutral" policy now in place in President Bush's home state of Texas. As governor in 1997, Bush created this admissions policy, whereby the top 10% of all high-school graduates are automatically admitted to any state university. This system can work only if you assume all public schools are equal. In Texas, a state wealth-sharing program nicknamed "Robin Hood" has alleviated some of the disparities in its public schools caused by property taxes, but such a program isn't available in other states, and it's now being tested in Texas courts.

The sad truth is high schools in America are anything but equal. So an admissions system equating students at poorly funded schools with their wealthier peers isn't fair. Since their educational training is poorer, low-income students need an edge during admissions -- not just to be treated the same.

Moreover, significant disparities of wealth among students may exist in the same school that skimming the 10% of students off the top doesn't rectify. Let's not forget that the poorest students often come from single-parent households -- a syndrome more common in minority households than whites. Children of such households have less parental guidance and often less time or motivation to study. Money -- or the lack thereof -- is the most common cause for marital strife. So a system that also favors children of single-parent households would be beneficial.


  Even upon admission, poor students still face an uphill battle, especially at private universities. How will they pay for Harvard or Princeton, should they be lucky enough to get in? Here's where an income-based standard really helps. With the poorest students having an admissions edge and universities no longer under fire for doling out "legacy preferences," more money and endowments for scholarships and financial aid will likely be available. With legacy preferences under attack in the court of public opinion, such a move could steer it in a constructive way.

Of course, favoring poor students or kids from broken homes smacks of quotas to anti-affirmative action groups. A true meritocracy would assess people on nothing but their grades and the content of their character, their argument goes. But a true meritocracy wouldn't spend more money educating rich kids than poor. And it wouldn't let a student go to Yale just because his father did.

By acknowledging the role that income inequality plays in deciding which Americans go to college and by helping Ivy League and other private universities develop more well-rounded student bodies, wealth-based affirmative-action admission programs would do a world of good not only for less financially endowed students but for the schools as well.

Braham, a graduate of New York University, covers personal finance for BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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