01/10/2013 08:50 pm ET | Updated Mar 12, 2013

If Not Race, Then Wealth: Why Universities Should Avoid Income As Proxy for Race-Based Admissions Policy

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court may land the final blow to what's left of race-based affirmative action in higher education. If the type of questioning raised during case hearings in October are an indicator, the Court may rule that the University of Texas at Austin's
admissions policies violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and that the plaintiff, 22-year old Abigail Fisher, was a victim of what affirmative action opponents long have framed as "reverse discrimination." In practice, this means that public universities, but also private institutions that receive federal monies, may be required to eliminate any "race-based" admissions criteria. Even the smallest race-based factors considered permissible under the Grutter vs. Bollinger (2003) decision -- which the court ruled were "narrowly-tailored" enough alongside other admissions criteria given a "compelling interest" for universities to represent the diverse demographic composition of the United States -- may be

Since its roots in the Philadelphia Plan, which demanded "goals and timetables" for minority hiring by government contractors, affirmative action policies have been met repeatedly with judicial scrutiny from district to federal levels. While often thought of as specific redistributive policy serving as reparations for slavery and Jim Crow, affirmative action actually is a varied set of positive anti-discrimination measures designed to desegregate elite institutions and preferred positions, including university admissions. A common myth perpetrated by opponents of affirmative action is the narrative that "unqualified minorities" take admissions slots from whites. This argument not only underscores white-entitlement to positions at elite institutions, but also assumes that whites generally are qualified for admission, and by default, blacks and Latinos generally are not. This ignores the historical advantage and protected access whites continue to hold via admissions preferences for legacies and children of donors, among other channels -- hidden affirmative action for the privileged group. It also ignores the well-documented evidence from experimental psychology, developed by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson involving the phenomena of stereotype threat, boost and lift.

Collectively these effects demonstrate that outcomes on high stakes standardized tests, like the SAT, underestimate the comparative achievement and college readiness for test takers from groups whom society stigmatizes as cognitively inferior. Correspondingly it exaggerates the scores for individuals from groups whom society deems cognitively superior. Indeed, the problem is so severe that social psychologists Gregory Walton and Steven Spencer show that standardized test scores significantly underestimate the "latent ability" of many black students. Thus the notion that affirmative action leads elite universities to be over-run by "under-qualified" and "unmeritorious" blacks should be replaced with the more alarming concern that the absence of affirmative action would likely strengthen the historical advantage and protected access for whites to selective institutions described above -- and, in particular, privilege access for "mediocre" whites.

Consistent with the emergent norms of an ostensibly "post-racial" society, increasingly it is argued that if affirmative action is to survive, a preferred form is to substitute family income for race as a fairer criterion for selective college admissions. Undoubtedly, class and race-based affirmative action policies are not mutually exclusive and both could contribute to the effective desegregation of elite universities, but race-based affirmative action is specifically
designed to combat persistent racial discrimination while class-based policies are not so designed. Indeed, blacks from more affluent families are not insulated from racial discrimination. Nonetheless, we submit, if class is to replace race in selective college admissions, than at the very least, wealth should serve as the indicator of class status rather than income.

Wealth is a far superior measure of socioeconomic position and provides a far better class measure as proxy for race or ethnicity than income. For instance, a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center used government data to find that the 2009 median wealth of white households was 20 and 18 times higher than black and Latino households, respectively. The median net worth for whites was calculated at $113,149 in comparison with $5,677 and $6,325 for black and Latino households, respectively. In short, the typical black and Latino households have about a nickel for every dollar of wealth as the typical white household.

To be clear, we do not believe that class-based affirmative action should supplant a race based
approach. Ideally, the two approaches would operate in complementary fashion. The class-based approach alone simply will not combat racial discrimination as effectively as the race-based approach. But if the Supreme Court decides in favor of Abigail Fisher and opponents of race-based affirmative action are sincere in their advocacy of a class-based approach, we encourage universities to transition from an income to wealth-based criteria to
continue to promote greater equity in university admissions.