Racial fairness in college admissions

Education | Marvin Olasky

Racial fairness in college admissions

Students at the University of Texas at Austin walk to class.
Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay

As the Supreme Court jogs toward a ruling on affirmative action, a new National Bureau of Economic Research study shows that many high-achieving high school students deserve affirmation and don’t get it. Colleges interested in diversity that goes more than skin-deep may have to change their ways, but even if the Supremes don’t command it, they should change their ways.

The study, by Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard’s Christopher Avery, shows that most high-achieving students (A grades plus the top 10 percent of SAT or ACT scores) who are low-income do not apply to the top 4 percent of colleges or universities, even though attendance there would often cost them less because of generous financial aid.

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Part of the reason is ignorance. The New York Times, which reported on the new research, quoted Winona Leon, valedictorian of a 17-member senior class in West Texas, who was typical in assuming that she’d only go to a Texas state university. Then she learned about options and financial aid opportunities, and she’s now a sophomore at the private, pricey University of Southern California.

The study suggested another reason: Some 69 percent of the high-achieving, low-income students were white and 15 percent were Asian-American. Only 14 percent were black or Latino, but under government pressure many colleges use their recruiting and financial resources to bring in members of those two racial/ethnic minorities, ignoring white and Asian-Americans—yet poor students from all the groups often have the same disadvantage of not knowing any graduates of elite colleges.

“If there are changes to how we define diversity,” said University of Virginia dean of admissions Greg Roberts, “then I expect schools will really work hard at identifying low-income students.”

It’s about time. The perseverance that many people from poor backgrounds have in gaining education, whatever their race, deserves to be rewarded.

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