Class-based admissions boost campus diversity

End of racial affirmative action may not be bad news for minorities, study shows

September 19, 2013

The phasing-out of “affirmative action” based on race in US universities need not lead to a reduction in the number of minority students on campus, according to a study of class-based admissions at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In June, the Supreme Court delivered a ruling against racial affirmative action policies. Institutions can consider ethnicity in admissions only “if available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice”, the court ruled in Fisher v University of Texas at Austin.

Two academics have now looked at a pilot of Colorado’s class-based admissions system to see whether it would admit fewer minority groups than the system that explicitly gave them an advantage.

Contrary to expectations, the class-based system slightly increased admission rates for underrepresented ethnic minority applicants, according to “Considering Class: College Access and Diversity”, an article in the latest issue of Harvard Law and Policy Review by Matthew Gaertner, research scientist at the Pearson Center for College and Career Success, and Melissa Hart, an associate professor of law at Colorado.

Colorado’s system measures both student disadvantage and what the institution terms “overachievement” – how much better applicants do in high school exams and SAT university entry tests than would have been expected based on their social background.

It uses measures including whether an applicant’s native language is English, their parents’ education, family income, the number of familial dependants and whether their high school is in a rural area, as well as school class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios.

When a cohort of applicants in 2009 was assessed under the race-based system, 56 per cent of black, Latino and Native American applicants were admitted. Under the class-based method, this rose to 65 per cent.

The “results challenge the prevailing assumption that class-conscious admissions will not be helpful in maintaining racial diversity on campus”, the paper concludes.

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