In a handful of places, colleges and professional schools have followed Justice William Douglas’s advice in DeFunis v. Odegard (1974) and replaced racial preferences with class-based affirmative action. These decisions track arguments made by a number of individuals, who believe that a class-based approach both avoids the taint of invoking legally “suspect” criteria and yields at least equal if not better admissions results give economic and social stratification in the United States.
One major institution that adopted this approach is the University of California, which moved away from using racial preferences (at least at the undergraduate level) after the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996. Kate Antonovics and Ben Backes undertook a detailed analysis of how UC undergraduate admissions changed, and a quantitative analysis of how socioeconomic factors became more important, in “The Effect of Banning Affirmative Actino on College Admissions Rules and Student Quality,” 49 Journal of Human Resources 295 (2014). Several of the UC campuses continue to be national leaders in the proportion of students receiving Pell Grants.
Within UC, some individual schools undertook more ambitious experiments. At UCLA’s School of Law, David Sklansky (now at Stanford) and Richard Sander proposed a set of preferences that took parental education, parental wealth, and neighborhood socioeconomic status into account. The system, implemented in the 1997 admissions cycle, produced a law school class that was dramatically more socioeconomically diverse than at any other national law school. The class was also racially diverse and went on to achieve what was, up to that point, the highest California bar passage rate of any UCLA Law School class. UCLA modified the system in subsequent classes, but continues to use socioeconomic preferences to a degree unusual at law schools. Sander compiled data on how the program worked, and published his results as part of a debate on “class-based” versus “race-based” affirmative action published by the Journal of Legal Education.
Programs of this sort have numerous advantages. As a threshold matter, they shift the debate away from the difficult if not irreconcilable realm of race-based policies. They avoid the litigation that inevitably follows from race-based admissions systems. Perhaps most importantly, they produce entering classes that achieve high levels of diversity across the entire spectrum of backgrounds and characteristics consistent with a broad rather than narrow understanding of the term.