Affirmative action was put in place by colleges across the US to create more ethnically diverse college campuses and make up for unequal childhood opportunity. The controversy over the policy goes back to the 1978 case of California V. Bakke where the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for universities to use racial “quotas” but using ethnicity as a factor in the decision making process was legal.
Since then eight states including California have banned affirmative action at public institutions.
Private colleges have also felt backlash against policies intended to create diversity. In August, the Department of Justice investigated Harvard after a federal complaint was filed claiming that the University discriminated against Asian American applications.
Defenders of affirmative action argue that Caucasian and Asian applicants benefit from greater economic, educational, and emotional opportunities than the average ethnic minority applicants. Therefore, white and Asian applicants should require a slightly higher SAT score or more impressive resume to be accepted.
Despite affirmative action policies at many private and public schools across the nation, ethnic minorities are still underrepresented in US colleges.
In 2015 only 6 percent of freshmen nationwide were black and 13 percent Hispanic according to data gathered by the New York Times. Comparatively, 15 percent of 18-year olds in the US were black and 22 percent hispanic in 2015.
Affirmative action is certainly improving racial diversity, but it has a long way to go.
There is another group of students that are even less well represented at the nation’s best colleges and less discussed in the media: those from a lower socioeconomic background.
In Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College, Alexandria Walton Radford found that only three percent of the of students at the 146 most selective universities are from the bottom 20 percent with a family income of less than $22,000.
For instance, Harvard’s published figures state that 14.6 percent of the student body is black and 11.6 percent is Latino which is more diverse than the national college student average. Despite the racial diversity, 76 percent of students come from families in the top 20 percent economically with a family income over $110,000. Only 4.5 percent of incoming freshmen hail from the bottom quintile.
In the early 1990s, researchers from the University of Kansas observed 42 families from different socioeconomic backgrounds. They found that children from high income families hear 30 million more words than those from low income families by age three.
Follow up studies found that these initial effects are long term, resulting lower performance in school and decreased likelihood to enroll in college.
Students that benefit from Harvard’s affirmative action policy are often ethnic minority students who grew up with two college educated parents in a middle class home.
What does a vacation looks like? What gets talked about at the dinner table? How much time do parents spend helping their child with school? Is there time outside of school to focus on homework?
Income will dictate the response to these questions far more reliably than ethnicity.
Latino and African American children on average come from a families in a lower income bracket. The Kids Count Data Center found that 39 percent of African-American children and 33 percent of Latino children live in poverty. The poverty rate for non-Latino, white, and Asian children is 14 percent.
This discrepancy demonstrates that there is still a large opportunity gap between racial minorities and majorities.
However, generalizing that all minority students experience fewer opportunities than white and Asian students is too broad. Such a practice leads to admission statistics like those boasted by Harvard: racially diverse but economically homogenous.
In order to compensate for unequal opportunity, college admissions focus on both socioeconomic background and race. If racial minority students are fighting an uphill battle, than children from uneducated, low income families are climbing a cliff.