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Give Poor Students A Chance, Not A Preference


A new report from the Virginia-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation urges American colleges and universities to admit more poor students by giving them special preferences.

The report is accompanied by a two-minute promotional video, which opens with the names of elite institutions floating across the screen: Brown, Princeton, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Rice. The scrolling text then explains “the admissions game has been rigged” by preferences for athletes, family members, and children of donors. It mentions nothing about racial preferences.

The video then announces a new way to rig the game: “It’s time to give a preference to high-achieving low-income students.” The reasoning, according to the report’s findings, is that low-income students are less likely to apply to selective schools and to take prep courses for standardized tests; so these students comprise a forgotten cohort that, if given the chance, could succeed academically.

Yes, Let’s Help the Aspiring Poor

Opponents of admissions preferences, such as the National Association of Scholars (NAS), call for merit-based admissions instead. The Cooke Foundation report appropriates the term in its title “True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities.” According to it, the merit low-income students bring to the table is their grit and determination “to succeed against all odds.”

Perhaps many poor students do have to work harder than their peers and thus have a quality of character that colleges should desire.

There may be something to that: perhaps many poor students do have to work harder than their peers and thus have a quality of character that colleges should desire. As for access, Americans should contribute to and volunteer in programs that help low-income students on their way to college, specifically ones that provide free after-school tutoring, assistance with scholarship and FAFSA forms, and SAT and ACT prep courses. We should also support programs that provide community and accountability for students once they have enrolled in college.

Colleges can encourage poorer students to apply by offering generous financial aid (grants, not loans) to students accepted through need-blind admissions. But they ought not to institute income-based preferences.

Income Discrimination as a Proxy for Race Discrimination

Richard D. Kahlenberg, co-author of “True Merit,” popularized such preferences a few years ago when the Fisher v. University of Texas case was first before the Supreme Court (now in its second round before the Court, Fisher is expected to be decided in summer 2016). A senior fellow in the progressive New York think tank the Century Foundation, Kahlenberg advocated income-based preferences as a fallback plan should the decision in Fisher restrain colleges from considering race in admissions.

In other words, it says, follow the lead, circumvent the law, and you can still discriminate based on race.

In “The Wrong Way to Admit the Other Half” (2013), NAS President Peter Wood and Chairman Herbert London addressed this and explained two other problems with preferences based on income. They warned against implementing a policy that serves as a subterfuge for racial preferences. The Cooke Foundation report baldly announces this aim: “It [a low-income preference] provides a viable alternative strategy to promote racial diversity on campus, particularly if the Supreme Court precludes or limits race-conscious affirmative action in the currently pending Fisher II Case” (page 29).

The report alludes frequently to the prospect of the Court curtailing racial preferences in Fisher. “True Merit” suggests colleges should borrow from the playbook of institutions that have continued to seek racial diversity even after laws were enacted in their states banning racial preferences. In other words, it says, follow the lead, circumvent the law, and you can still discriminate based on race.

Class Is Not a Qualification for College

The second problem with a class-based preference is that it empowers so-called “experts” who are determined to use non-academic qualities as criteria for college admissions, ultimately undermining the academic mission of higher education. Wood and London acknowledge that strict merit-only-based evaluation is not always possible. But:

Class is not a qualification for college, and class-based affirmative action would turn it into something to be valued in its own right: so much weight for actual intellectual ability; so much weight for sheer determination; so much weight for proven capacity to stay focused and work hard;—and so much additional weight because an admissions official deems the student to belong to a ‘social class’ that is under-represented.

Valuing poverty as a good in itself, and using it as a “plus” for applicants to college, would only introduce the insecurities (“Do I belong here or was I a ‘diversity’ recruit?”) and bitterness (“You probably don’t think I deserve to be here”) that racial preferences have made so familiar. Socioeconomic status is less visible to the eye than race and ethnicity, but we shouldn’t ignore the power of students knowing that they and their peers each earned a place at their competitive institutions fairly, based on appropriate criteria.

Class-based preferences use non-academic qualities as criteria for college admissions, ultimately undermining the academic mission of higher education.

The third problem with class-based preferences is that they conflate admission to college with financial aid to attend college. Again, admission to college should be gained through talent, hard work, and intellectual curiosity. A non-academic preference implies that students benefitting from it would otherwise not make the cut.

We now know from research on “mismatch,” most notably by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, that students who find themselves in settings where they are academically outranked are much more vulnerable to disappointed hopes, social isolation, and academic failure than they would have been if they had gone to a school that suited them better. As law professor Gail Heriot has shown, mismatched students tend to leave programs in science and engineering. Neither racial minorities nor low-income students should be subject to this sad consequence of good intentions.

The Only Preference Should Be for Academic Quality

When mismatch occurs, either the preferenced students get left behind, or the college lowers academic standards—so either the individuals suffer or the quality of education does. Colleges can avoid mismatch by admitting students who demonstrate readiness for the level of rigor in place. They should offer, whenever possible, generous financial aid for qualified students in need. But, as Wood and London put it, “Preferential admission for such students, however, is very different and it is a bad idea. We should not let the proponents of ‘class-based affirmative action’ confuse the two.”

The New York Times in 2014 ran a Room for Debate forum on income-based affirmative action. Not one of the seven essays condemned both racial and economic preferences. They all favored one or the other or both. Haibo Huang, one of the contributors, wrote forcefully about the harms of race-based preference:

It fosters victim mindset, removing any incentive for excellence. It mismatches students and institutions, causing high failure and dropout rates among the ‘beneficiaries.’ It papers over deep-rooted social problems, condemning under-privileged kids to a permanent cycle of dysfunctional schools. It compromises academic mission and hurts U.S. competitiveness in the global economy. We are short-changing ourselves with racial preferences.

Income-based affirmative action exacerbates all these same problems, but Huang, who favors socioeconomic over racial preference, appears oblivious of how the two are parallel. Kahlenberg and his “True Merit” co-author are similarly inconsistent. While they deplore legacy and athletic preferences, they promote widespread use of another deep unfairness.

Colleges should respond to such prescriptions by standing by their mission to educate students well and by adhering to fair principles in admissions. They should welcome students of any financial background who are capable of making the most of their education. Character gained through perseverance in the face of difficulty may be an aspect colleges should consider in student applications. But a preference for low-income for its own sake would only perpetuate injustice, not redress it.