The Supreme Court is widely expected to soon deliver a death sentence for affirmative action in college admissions. Decisions in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina are expected to be handed down in June. If this happens, it closes one door to what is considered diversity — but another could open.
Currently, students from the upper economic classes outnumber those from the bottom by almost 25 to 1 at the country’s most elite colleges. In a post-affirmative action world, looking at equity and equality through another lens — class — could level the playing field for low-income students of all backgrounds. In a society where racist structures persist, so does classism. The United States, among peers, has among the lowest income mobility. If equity, as well as equality, is a goal, then leveling the playing field for low-income students of all backgrounds could yield some surprising outcomes.
How would I know? I’m a white woman with a degree from Wellesley College and a double master’s from Columbia University. Scratch the surface, though, and I am a formerly barefoot, rootless girl from a series of mobile homes across the South. Once I figured out how embarrassing my situation was, I actively hid my social status.
In my admissions essays, I never mentioned that I spent the summer I was 10 living in the parking lot of a truck stop, waiting for my mom to get off her waitress shift. That I had moved over 18 times by the time I graduated high school. Yet I beat the odds and got in. Most do not.
Georgetown scholar Richard Kahlenberg, author of “The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action,” testified as an expert witness for the Students for Fair Admissions, the group seeking to strike down affirmative action. The system, he told me recently, privileges students of all races who come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. “Universities have excluded most low-income students as it does require more financial resources than simply admitting wealthy students of whatever race,” he said. “So universities have shied away from admitting economically disadvantaged students.” Students like me.
We have seen the future in California and Michigan, having already ruled that race cannot be a factor in admission. These cases are an accelerating trend. Predictably, the numbers of minority students fell after repeal. In 2022 the University of California, in an amicus brief, stated “despite its extensive efforts, UC struggles to enroll a student body that is sufficiently racially diverse to attain the educational benefits of diversity. The shortfall is especially apparent at UC’s most selective campuses, where African American, Native American, and Latinx students are underrepresented and widely report struggling with feelings of racial isolation.”
For those from poor backgrounds like me, we struggle more once we arrive on campus. I was part of a low-income cohort that was invited a month early to brush up on the skills we would need, like writing papers and math. Most of my group ultimately did not graduate, largely due to culture shock, emotional dislocation, and depression. Like the UC confession, colleges are only starting to acknowledge they need to support those who arrive on campus to actually thrive.
Kahlenberg put it simply to me in a recent interview: “The Supreme Court has always treated economic distinctions more leniently than racial, so there should be no strong argument against class-based affirmative action.”
Currently, less than 3 percent (or 66 of the total of 2,633 colleges) offer both need-blind admissions and meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for four years — a student’s ability to pay is normally factored into whether they are allowed in. To address equity, colleges could ask prospective students questions about their situation to establish financial precarity. These could include: how many times they have moved, how many jobs they and/or their caregiver(s) have held down, whether a caregiver has filed for bankruptcy, or whether they have had access to a school guidance counselor for advice.
Art Coleman of the education consultancy Education Counsel told me that this is “a moment both of challenge and of opportunity for colleges. This is a chance to think about the potential consequences.” The academic industry, he said, has had a shorthand that perpetuated a class hierarchy while only “superficially” addressing diversity.
“A conservative Supreme Court decision will lead to ‘liberal’ results, opening the door to working-class students of all races,” predicts Kahlenberg. Are we ready?
Carla Newman is a Houston-based writer currently working on a memoir, “Trailer Trash.” She received support for this piece from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The OpEd Project.