Race-based affirmative action, Richard D. Kahlenberg writes in an oped today, is shaky ground on which to pursue the most diverse student bodies in higher education. He argues that the racial and ethnic minorities who tend to benefit from the existing race-based systems — in which an applicant belonging to an underrepresented group gets some sort of advantage — tend to be from more privileged backgrounds than those the systems were designed to help. Why not a system that targets the underprivileged more directly? Kahlenberg suggests, among other things, favoring the top 10 percent of any high school class, from great schools and bad schools, so some less advantaged applicants are always part of the mix.

It’s an idea many commenters like for social engineering reasons, lessening the impact of someone’s circumstances of birth:

Lila4 says that this kind of system would benefit the underprivileged and defuse racial resentment:

The biggest social problem this country has is rising inequality. The biggest problem with the racial preference system is that it makes the achievements of minorities suspect to others who fear they did not really earn the achievement but was given to them as preference. Programs targeted to support lower income students will disproportionately benefit minorities because those groups have larger proportions of low income families. But by being equally opened to low income whites the resentment should fade away. We cannot make racial preferences eternal. It is like saying they cannot compete on a level field, and that cannot be the case. Poverty is the handicap to achieve, not race.

DOps says that affirmative action is just as necessary, but America has made progress regarding race in the ways that it hasn’t regarding economic class:

As we have progressed to a more race-neutral society, I think we needed to start thinking about the poor white kid in Appalachia not getting as much of an edge as a rich Hispanic kid from Coral Gables.

Interestingly, an argument PostScript has seen elsewhere, that students, campuses and the future workforce will also benefit from increased class diversity in higher education, didn’t come up in the comments.

But other commenters are uncomfortable with any social engineering:


The premise of this column seems to suggest exchanging one form of discrimination for another. The goal is the same . . . to reach some acceptable level of racial balance in university admissions.

Affirmative action is tricky no matter how it is gamed.

And others find ways in which economic affirmative action can get as complicated as racial affirmative action:


I could get behind this idea but have some concerns.

1) The Federal government has zero constitutional authority to mandate this. Such a program should be handled at a university\state level.

2) How do we pay for it? Students already face rising costs and such a program would require those same students pay more to subsidize the poorer students. Or, States would have to raise taxes.


I would suggest that such preferences be based on wealth, not income, because it is less transitory and subject to less fluctuation.

Which is a good point, but PostScript wonders if it might actually discourage parents from saving for tuition.

Telin wonders why not do more social engineering for younger students first:

Part and parcel with accepting economic-based affirmative action is acceptance of the position that no one should have the benefit of their family economics; everyone should be the same.

And we’re not. Economic-based affirmative action should manifest itself in an actual leveling of the playing field — infusing pre-school, kindergarten, gradeschools and highschools with quality programs and materials, with after-school programs for help and time and equipment for athletics, and outreach programs for economically disadvantaged families to learn that growing kids need sleep and quiet places to study and nutrition — and the help to make that happen. Only then will everyone, no matter what color or race, be able to compete equally.

That certainly sounds wonderful to PostScript! But how, other than what Kahlenberg suggests, would we get there from here?