Expert Commentary

Race-based affirmative action: How colleges can achieve diversity without it

Without affirmative action, colleges could still ensure a racially diverse student body if they started giving preference to lower-income students while also urging more minorities to apply, a new analysis suggests.

College students walking on campus
(University of the Fraser Valley/Wikimedia Commons)

If American colleges were to halt race-based admissions decisions, they could still ensure a racially diverse student body if they started giving preference to lower-income students while also urging more minorities to apply, a new analysis suggests.

The change would be expensive, however. In fact, the analysis, published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, indicates schools would have trouble affording this two-pronged approach.

“Colleges that consider such policies will have to consider what those policies will mean in terms of the additional students who need financial aid,” the research team, led by Stanford University professor Sean F. Reardon, writes. “The associated cost of providing financial aid to these more financially needy students might render such policies infeasible in practice.”

Expanding recruitment and outreach efforts also would require more money, although the researchers did not provide any estimates of increased costs.

For many colleges in the United States, especially highly selective ones, race is one of several factors used to choose the next class of students. But race-based affirmative action has become increasingly unpopular. Multiple states, including California and Florida, have banned public colleges and universities from considering race in admissions decisions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admissions program was constitutional but also expressed skepticism about the ongoing need for race-based policies.

Meanwhile, in July 2018, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice jointly announced they were “withdrawing” federal guidance documents issued under the Obama administration that had promoted the use of race in college admissions.

Reardon and his colleagues were curious whether a race-neutral policy — giving preference to students with a lower socioeconomic status (SES) — could produce the same level of student diversity as race-based affirmative action. They examined data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 to estimate college admissions weights for students of different racial and income groups. They used data from that survey and other sources to build a model to simulate how different admissions policies would impact campus diversity over the span of three decades.

The model was comprised of a system of 40 institutions and 10,000 new college-age students for each simulated year — a model designed to represent all degree-granting colleges and universities nationwide. They limited their model, however, to students from the four largest racial groups: white, black, Hispanic and Asian.

Here are some other key takeaways from their 51-page study:

  • The most selective colleges give more weight to applications from black and Hispanic students in admissions decisions. But there is little or no evidence that lower-tier schools give preference to black or Hispanic students. There’s no evidence that Asian students have an admissions advantage at highly selective schools or less selective ones.
  • Selective schools tend to give slightly more weight to students with a lower SES. Lower-income students seem to be penalized, though, by the admissions process at less selective schools, which give preference to higher-income students. The researchers suggest income-based admissions decisions work in two directions. “On the one hand, most colleges rely heavily on student tuition and must take ability to pay into account in admissions. On the other hand, many colleges, particularly very selective colleges, actively recruit and admit low-SES students.”
  • According to the model, giving preference to students with a lower SES does not achieve the same level of campus diversity as race-based affirmative action. Neither does race-targeted recruitment. When combined, however, the two efforts could be as effective as race-based affirmative action. In certain scenarios, they could be slightly more effective at increasing Hispanic enrollment at top-ranking colleges.


Looking for more research on college student diversity? Check out this collection of research on affirmative action and our write-up on Asians in higher education.



This photo, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.


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