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Class Considerations

June 12, 2013

With the Supreme Court poised to rule on a case that could end the practice of universities using race as a determining factor in admissions, pundits like New York Times editor Bill Keller wonder whether affirmative action should be based on class rather than race. In a recent editorial, Keller writes that factoring economic class into admissions “…is controversial, the execution is complicated and it doesn’t come cheap, but it promises a richer kind of variety – and it is less likely to run afoul of the Supreme Court… .”

The University of California is right in the thick of the legal brouhaha, having filed an amicus brief to the relevant case, Fisher v Texas. The brief argues, among other things, that “student body diversity cannot be fully realized at selective institutions without taking race into account in undergraduate admissions decisions.”

The numbers seem to back up that stance. Between 1995 and 2009, African Americans constituted between seven and eight percent of California’s high-school graduates. In 1995 they accounted for slightly more than seven percent of entering freshmen at Cal. That number plummeted to about three percent after the Regents voted to end race-based considerations in admissions and California voters passed Proposition 209; the 1996 law bars state institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity in areas like public education and government contracts. African American admissions to Berkeley have grown only slightly since then.

Figures for Latino students have been higher, but that is generally attributed to California’s swelling Hispanic population.  Latinos jumped from 30 to 41 percent of total California high school graduates between 1995 and 2009; in 1995, they constituted 18.5 percent of Cal’s freshman class. That figure dropped to 8.5 percent in 1998, then hit almost 18 percent in 2012.

If the high court rules against using race as a factor in deciding undergraduate admissions then universities can always focus on economic status. If they fail on that front, a new spin on the famous exchange between Fitzgerald and Hemingway may be apt:

The rich are different from you and me.

They get into college.

–Glen Martin

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