Class-based preferences, a mutation best avoided

Yesterday, I commented on a piece by Peter Beinart in which he urged Barack Obama to support class-based preferences instead of race-based preferences. However, I devoted the post to attacking Beinart’s logic and never got to the merits of “preference for the poor.”

To the extent that such preferences depart from the status quo, they are a bad idea. I put it this way because to some extent the poor already benefit from preferences when it comes to college admission. Anyone who follows college admissions understands that, say, an applicant from a low income family in rural Kentucky will have a better chance of admission to an elite college (other things being equal) than an applicant with the same SAT score from a suburban school near Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. Admissions officers might argue that the Kentucky student, having succeeded without many advantages, has a better chance of success at college and in life than the “privileged” Eastern suburbanite. Under this view, that student isn’t really receiving preferential treatment. More likely, though, the college simply finds the low-income more appealing and doesn’t want a student body completely dominated by Eastern suburbanites. (At our local high school in the DC suburbs, a few top colleges — e.g., Penn, Cornell, the University of Chicago, and Washington University — seem happy to admit a large contingent of top students; I believe these schools have moved up the ladder in the U.S. News & World Report rankings).

Either way, a college should be free to select the low-income student as long as race, a suspect classification, is not a motivating factor. My point, though, is that class-based preferences are probably already part of the admissions process.

For the government to mandate an expansion of these preferences — awarding the significant number of slots now set aside for African-Americans and Hispanics to low-income applicants — is a bad idea. Colleges know better than the government the extent to which growing up poor adversely affects one’s college credentials; how well students receiving class-preferences are likely to perform at college; and what “mix” of students is desirable on a given campus. The present level of class-based preferences reflects those judgments.

The only incentve for colleges to expand class-based preferences is if racial preferences are eliminated. This is the scenario Beinart has in mind. In that case, many colleges would be tempted to use class-based preferences to maintain something approaching current levels of minority representations. In practice, this would mean giving many of the slots that now go to the children of well-off blacks to the children of poor blacks.

This idea may sound good on the stump, but it would likely prove problematic on the campus. For higher-income minority students score better on the SAT than lower income minority students (the same phenomenon applies to whites); they attend schools that better prepare them for college; and they tend to be more comfortable around white students. In short, as a group they make better college students at elite institutions.

Colleges may have the right to overlook these considerations in the name of promoting their vision of social justice, provided they are not doing so as a backdoor means of favoring members of a particular race. But the government shouldn’t require, pressure, or encourage colleges to take this approach.

Reformers will always find a use for something as enticing as the manipulation of college admissions and employment decisions for social ends. This helps explain why affirmative action, which began as a short-term remedy for rooting out existing discrimination practiced by specific employers, quickly became a medium term remedy for the alleged effects of past discrimination, and then evolved into an entitlement system intended permanently to ensure racial diversity. The case for a further mutation, this time into a remedy for class injustice, is unpersuasive.

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