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Ideas | Richard D. Kahlenberg

We still need affirmative action — just not by race


A recent WGBH poll found that 86 percent of Americans value having racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses, and yet 72 percent said they disagreed with a Supreme Court decision allowing race to be “one factor in deciding which applicants to admit.” Are Americans nuts in thinking universities can get racial diversity without racial preferences?

Not at all. Because race still matters in American society, blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately poor, and therefore disproportionately benefit from socioeconomic preferences. At the same time, the class-based approach recognizes that disadvantaged whites and Asians deserve a leg up, too, and that privileged underrepresented minorities, such as former President Barack Obama’s daughters, do not.

Needs-based affirmative action makes sense to people. Whereas only 24 percent supported using race as a factor in the WGBH poll, 58 percent said admissions officers should include “overcoming hardships such as poverty or health problems” as an admissions factor — more than supported considering leadership, or athletic or musical talent.


Extensive research finds that if colleges create a genuinely fair admissions system, which factors in economic obstacles students have had to overcome, then African-Americans and Latinos can succeed without racial preferences. New research I conducted as part of a lawsuit by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard affirms these findings.

Using actual applicant data, we were able to test whether socioeconomic preferences would work to produce the educational benefits of diversity, using Harvard’s own system of rating students based on academic, extracurricular, athletic, and personal criteria.

We began by simulating what would happen if Harvard eliminated the blatantly unfair obstacles that it throws in the path of disadvantaged students, such as the substantial preference provided to the privileged children of alumni and faculty children, and a back-door “Z-list” admissions system that favors, among others, those who make it on to a special “dean’s interest” list. We then provided a preference to economically disadvantaged students that is about half the size of the leg up Harvard currently gives to athletes. Students of different races were treated equally.

The result? The admission of African American and Latino and other underrepresented minority students rose from 28 percent to 30 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of first-generation college students increased from 7 percent to 25 percent, a development that would surely make classrooms discussion more interesting at a university where in recent years, the number of high-income students has outnumbered the number of low-income students by 23 to 1.


Harvard nevertheless claimed this alternative system would fail to maintain “the standards of excellence that Harvard seeks in its student body.”

In reality, however, under socioeconomic preferences, the average high school grades of admitted students would be just as high as they are now, and SAT scores would be at the 98th percentile.

Incredibly, officials at Harvard also raised questions about whether the nation’s richest university could afford to provide financial aid under a system socioeconomic preferences. This was a surprising claim from an institution whose $37 billion endowment is larger than the GDP of half of the world’s countries. Indeed, Harvard’s own financial aid director testified that Harvard would have no problem doubling the proportion of disadvantaged students eligible for financial aid programs.

Racial diversity on campus is important, especially in the age of Donald Trump, when our nation is so deeply divided. But there is a better, less divisive way to achieve the goal by opening the doors of elite universities to disadvantaged students of all races who are now largely shut out of elite higher education.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of “The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative action.” In his personal capacity, he is an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions in its lawsuit against Harvard University.