Consider Class-Based Admissions

For five decades now, higher education leaders have been talking up the value of diversity. Students from different backgrounds challenge each other’s ideas, the leaders argue, which enriches their learning. Scholars have done studies backing the idea up.

Race is always the form of diversity that pops to mind first. Since the civil rights era, U.S. universities have tried to make up for the major discriminations of the past (and more subtle forms that continue today) by factoring racial and ethnic background into admissions decisions.

In our March|April issue, we convened a roundtable on these issues (“Rewriting Race in Admissions”). But now, just months later, the ground is already shifting under the feet of all higher education leaders.

The Supreme Court has decided to take up the case challenging UT’s admissions policies, and it will be argued this fall. Legal watchers believe the justices may ban knowing an applicant’s race. Even if that doesn’t happen, leaders at UT and beyond must consider what could be next.

One idea for making the admissions game more fair for the disadvantaged: class-based admissions. Under such a plan, lower-income applicants would be given an advantage, increasing both their individual opportunity and the country’s social mobility. And because of the persistent correlations between race and socioeconomic status in the United States, supporters say, class-based admissions could achieve much of the same racial diversity traditional affirmative action would.

The idea holds bipartisan appeal. The author of the definitive 1996 book on the subject, The Remedy: Race, Class, and Affirmative Action, calls himself liberal. Yet class-based admissions were later advocated by the Bush Administration, too. With the country’s income gap widening and race-factored admissions potentially being outlawed, people of all political persuasions may be able to agree on this idea.

There’s an interesting model just down the road from UT at Trinity University. In just two years, president Dennis Ahlburg has taken a school with a “middle-class white kids” reputation and grown its economic diversity impressively.

The percentage of Trinity freshmen eligible for Pell grants—the barometer of economic disadvantage in higher ed—has grown to 18 percent. Fifteen percent are now first-generation college students. And historically underrepresented groups now make up 38 percent of the freshman class (still lower than UT’s current 49 percent undergrads of color, true, but still an impressive growth from the far less diverse Trinity of yesteryear).

Class-based admissions are not cheap—lower- income students need more financial aid. Trinity’s financial aid budget has nearly doubled, to $34 million. That’s money that could have been spent on maintenance, facilities, and more. It’s taken donor buy-in and tuition increases.

“It’s very difficult—we cannot print money,” Ahlburg says. “As an economist, I know every- thing has an opportunity cost. But I think we have a pretty good balance. For this country to succeed, it has to be on the basis of giving everyone who has ability and is willing to work hard the opportunity for a great education.”

Those ideals should hold true for UT, too. We may no longer be able to rely on old ideas, or on the Top 10 Percent Law. The law’s most recent version, which capped the percentage of the freshman class that would have to be automatically admitted, also included a “slingshot clause” in case race could not be considered in admissions; it requires that if that were to happen, the law would have to be revisited.

Class-based admissions may not be a perfect solution. It would take rethinking admissions standards, cultivating support, carefully recruiting students, and finding ample legislative and financial backing. But given the alternative—a blind return to the racial imbalance of the Forty Acres past—it may be time to think realistically about what’s next.


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