What Type of Preferences? Class vs. Race

Ever since the late 1960s, when colleges and universities began to extend admissions preferences to the “disadvantaged,” both “race” and “class” have been in the mix. Race-based preferences focus on groups that are significantly underrepresented in higher education: Blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and sometimes other groups, such as Pacific Islanders or Filipinos. Class-based preferences focus instead on individual markers of disadvantage, such as whether the applicant’s parents attended college, parental income, the poverty level in the applicant’s home neighborhood, the academic quality of the applicant’s high school, and the like.

Some scholars have argued that colleges and universities use the rhetoric of disadvantage in describing their preference programs, but in fact focus heavily on racial representation and give short-shrift to class. A leading voice in this debate is Richard Kahlenberg whose book The Remedy, published in 1996, urged that racial preferences should be ended in favor of a class-based preference system. Kahlenberg argued that class-based preferences had greater public support, were less divisive, did not pose the legal problems of race-based preferences, and were intrinsically more fair. Others, such as Maimon Schwarzschild are less certain about this, arguing, for example, that defining the exact nature of such measures is at best difficult and that they also have the potential to be both arbitrary and unfair.

The current Harvard College litigation may provide valuable insights into this debate. When Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) brought suit in 2014, alleging illegal and unconstitutional racial discrimination, the most prominent issue in the case was Harvard’s alleged discrimination in undergraduate admissions against Asian-Americans.  But the plaintiffs also contended that Harvard could accomplish its diversity objectives through class-based preferences without considering race at all. 

The extensive discovery permitted in the case enabled experts on both sides to analyze in depth six years of undergraduate admissions outcome. This made it possible to measure the weight given various factors in the admissions process.  According to SFFA’s experts, Harvard gave substantially more weight to “race” than to “class” in its admissions.  They also found that when it came to Black applicants, Harvard gave no weight at all to “class,” so that the college’s Black admittees were arguably even less likely to come from low-SES backgrounds.

Further analysis of these materials may well shed important new light on the actual nature and effects of class considerations as admissions criteria. If, as proponents of class-based systems maintain, they lead to equal if not greater diversity they have the benefit of both achieving the same goals as race-based systems and avoiding the near-fatal rigors of strict judicial scrutiny.

List of Citations

Richard D. Kahlenberg. The Remdey: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action. 1996: Basic Books.

Maimon Schwarzschild. A Class Act? Social-Class Affirmative Action and Higher Education. 2021: in Gail Heriot & Maimon Schwarzschild (Eds.). A Dubious Expediency: How Race Preferences Damage Higher Education, Encounter Books, pp. 235-61.

Additional Reading

Elizabeth Aries. Race and Class Matters at an Elite College. 2008: Temple University Press.

Elizabeth Aries (with Richard Berman). Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College. 2013: Temple University Press.

Richard D. Kahlenberg (Ed.). The Future of Affirmative Action: New Paths to Higher Education Diversity after Fisher v. University of Texas. 2014: The Century Foundation Press.

Richard D. Kahlenberg (Ed.). Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. 2010: Century Foundation Books.

Richard D. Kahlenberg. Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College. 2010: Century Foundation Books.

Richard D. Kahlenberg. American’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education. 2004: Century Foundation Books.