Washington -- It's no surprise that the president is once again attempting to divide the country through a wedge issue. It's what he does. This time his wedge issue is affirmative action in college admissions, through which he hopes to stoke resentment among people of different ethnicities for his own narrow political ends.
No one should take the bait. Instead, cooler heads should offer what is long overdue in any case, college admissions that are based on reducing economic and geographic inequality, regardless of race and ethnicity, and through admissions that take into account students who could benefit from a value-added approach to education. Such counsel is wisely offered in a recent Washington Monthly article.
Sometimes called class-based affirmative action (and identified with its indefatigable proponent Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation), this non-race-based approach to college admissions has been tested successfully so as to result in increased racial and ethnic diversity, along with economic and geographic diversity as well, much desirable in their own right. Done correctly, this approach can work even better than race-based affirmative action in providing educational opportunity to minority populations.
So why haven't colleges already moved on and why do some still cling to a race-based approach that pits group against group, black against white against Asian against Hispanic? One answer is money. If you look at the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action, they are often those with comparatively less financial need.* Some colleges (and their Washington based associations) like to talk a good game on diversity as long as it comes cheap. They have filed briefs with courts to uphold the race-based approach, even though it has long been disfavored by the U.S. Supreme Court as requiring strict judicial scrutiny.
The colleges and their associations that have sown this wind are now about to reap the whirlwind, if the president is successful in using race-based affirmative action as a wedge issue. Republican support for higher education is already at a remarkable low.
Some colleges have gone to great lengths to try to demonstrate why class-based diversity measures are inferior to race-based. I am not convinced. College admission these days is manipulated by custom-made algorithms so refined that if the public knew how they worked, there would be a revolt. Colleges can make class-based affirmative action succeed if they want to. Not only can they make it succeed, in doing so they may discover ways to serve the country better by concentrating on developing students who will go on to serve communities that pay taxes for higher education and need its products, especially minority communities.**
Those who do not want to see race-based affirmative action tear the country apart could counter the president's move with one of their own. Those in Congress on the committees of jurisdiction could prepare and introduce legislation to direct the U.S. Department of Education to help colleges adopt class-based and similar affirmative action programs. This could be done by evaluating successful class-based efforts and by offering grants to colleges that want to use methods beyond skin color to achieve diversity. Although the lead can be taken by Democrats, Republicans should be welcomed as co-sponsors.
*When I was a researcher for the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, I looked at race by income by student loan debt over time. In general, affirmative action by race did not help low-income blacks, who were disadvantaged disproportionately by colleges' financial aid packaging.
**I have every confidence, based on years of watching the development of the enrollment management industry, that colleges can create variables for their admissions algorithms that look at where students come from and where they are likely to locate after college to engage in their professions – teaching, medicine, law, public administration, engineering, and the like. This is why geography and value-added education, as well as economic class, are desirable factors to consider in college admissions.