Preferences for the poor?

For almost a quarter of a century, Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation has been arguing that race-based college admissions policies should be replaced by preferential admissions for students from low income families. In fact, the first article I ever published (other than in a legal journal) was a 1996 op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing Kahlenberg’s proposal.

The oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas provided Kahlenberg another occasion to argue for preferences for the poor (as the Post put it in the title of my old article). He makes his case in a thoughtful Los Angeles Times op-ed.

I admit that these days I’m more sympathetic to the idea. Though America’s colleges have become more racially and ethnically diverse, the white population at top-tier institutions has become more homogeneous, it seems to me. Students hear “the black perspective” (albeit not usually from blacks) from the time they are seven years-old and experience their first Black History month. But when do the children of elite white Americans encounter the perspective of struggling white and working class Americans?

Kahlenberg’s idea also has the merit of promoting diversity without engaging in racial discrimination, assuming that colleges wouldn’t use economic preferences as a subterfuge to discriminate in favor of blacks. Unfortunately, I think colleges would use the preferences in exactly that way.

But economically-based preferences would likely exacerbate the serious problem of academic mismatch for black and other minority students admitted preferentially. Why? Because it would replace middle class minority students who tend to benefit from racial preferences with lower class minority students.

Since the test scores of minority students (like those of whites) rise as a function of family income, the upshot will be a decrease in the average test scores of minorities admitted under affirmative action. Accordingly, the adverse effects of mismatch on minority admittees — erosion of confidence, avoidance of science and engineering majors, etc. — will likely be exacerbated.

Economic-based preferences would, of course, also entail some academic mismatch for whites admitted pursuant to the policy. To what degree, I don’t know.

In any event, I believe that if the Supreme Court ever closes the door to race-based preferences at public universities, many of these institutions will replace them with economically-based preference policies. If so, this move will, on balance, represent an improvement.