Saturday, October 31, 2015

Toward a New Conception of Diversity

Induced More Economic Diversity

The New York Times recently published a ranking of "Top Colleges Doing the Most for Low Income Students."  The ranking relies upon the Times' annual "College Access Index." This index, in turn, employs three factors: (1) the percentage of students receiving Pell grants, (2) the graduation rate of students receiving such grants and (3) the net price, after financial aid, that the school charges low and middle income students.  (See here for a description of the index's methodology.)   The article characterizes schools with high scores on the index as more "economically diverse" than those with lower scores.

The top 15 schools as measured by this index include eight public universities: six from California as well as the University of Washington and the University of Florida.   While disparate in many ways, these eight schools have one thing in common: all are in states that have banned race-based preferences (one form of "affirmative action") in college admissions.  For instance, the 1996 California Civil Rights Initiative, championed by Ward Connerly (pictured above) amended the state's Constitution to provide as follows:

"The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting."

Washington's Initiative 200, enacted in 1998, added the same language to state law.  Moreover, in 1999, Governor Jeb Bush issued an executive order that "prohibit[ed] racial discrimination in education because of race, gender, creed, color, or national origin" and requested the state's universities to eliminate "racial set asides, quotas or preferences in admissions."   Thus, state law in all three states requires schools to employ exclusively race-neutral criteria when making admissions decisions.   Several other states, including Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Arizona and Oklahoma, have also banned the consideration of race in admissions.  The Supreme Court properly upheld state initiatives that eliminate race-conscious admissions policies in Schutte v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, 572 U.S. _____ (2014).

Of course, some states have declined to ban such discrimination, implicitly authorizing their colleges and universities to consider the race of applicants when making admission decisions.  Some universities have rejected this invitation, however.  For instance, in 2004 the Board of Regents of Texas A&M eliminated the consideration of race when evaluating applicants, after then-Chancellor Robert Gates recommended that "students at Texas A&M should be admitted as individuals, on personal merit --- and no other basis."  (Texas A&M, it should be noted, ranks 29th among the 179 schools ranked in the College Access Index.)

As Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter have explained, state bans on race-based preferences in admissions have encouraged colleges and universities to adopt more comprehensive definitions of diversity.  These definitions focus on class and economic disadvantage instead of race and ethnicity. By re-conceiving the definition of diversity, enhancing efforts at outreach and recruitment, and increasing need-based financial aid, these schools have all increased significantly the economic diversity of their student bodies.  In so doing these schools have better fulfilled their intended roles as engines of upward mobility and equal economic opportunity. Moreover, several such schools have seen the racial and ethnic diversity of their student bodies increase or remain the same after replacing race conscious admissions policies with class and/or income based policies.  (See also here.)

The experience of the schools highlighted above provides valuable lessons to other institutions that wish to enhance the economic diversity of their student bodies.  This experience may also have ramifications for the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies. To be sure, the Supreme Court has, in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) narrowly upheld the consideration of race by state officials making admissions decisions.  At the same time, the Court held that such preferences are invalid if race-neutral measures will achieve the same objective.  Indeed, the Grutter Court held that schools that employ race in admissions must engage in "periodic reviews to determine whether racial preferences are still necessary to achieve student body diversity."  The Court also observed that "25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary[.]"  If, in fact, admissions policies based on class and/or income can generate a "critical mass" of diverse students, it would appear that race-conscious admissions policies constitute unconstitutional racial discrimination.

There are, however, two possible caveats to this line of argument.  First, admissions strategies that focus on applicants' class and income may stretch institutions' financial aid budgets and thus be significantly more expensive than policies that emphasize race instead.  If so, schools could argue that a class and income based approach is not a valid alternative.  Second, admissions policies that rely upon class and income may be ill-suited for graduate and professional schools, given that many applicants to such program have been in the workforce for years, thereby blurring the lines between students who are economically diverse and those who are not.

One thing does seem certain, however.  Bans on race-conscious admissions policies have caused many schools to modify their admissions and recruitment strategies, thereby creating institutions characterized by greater economic diversity.