The Right Coast

July 13, 2004
Class-Based Affirmative Action: Are the Numbers Reliable?
By Gail Heriot

In “Beyond Race-Based Affirmative Action,” the always-thoughtful Nat Hentoff quotes this year’s commencement address at Amherst College given by its president, Anthony Marx:

“‘At our top colleges,’ said Amherst’s president, ‘only one-tenth of our students are drawn from the poorer half of the population [and] only 3 percent from the bottom quarter. Three-quarters of top college students come from the wealthiest quarter of society.’”

These numbers are taken from an article by Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose entitled “Socio-Economic Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Selective College Admissions,” which appears in America’s Untapped Resource: Low Income Students in Higher Education edited by Richard Kahlenberg. They show a rather pronounced skew. And critics on both the right and the left have seized upon them to push their view of the world. The right uses them to argue that race preferences (which often benefit well-to-do minorities) are misguided; the left uses them to argue for class-based preferences in addition to race-based preferences.

But I wonder if these numbers mean what they are thought to mean. The typical American household does not fit neatly into one of four quartiles over the course of its history. Its economic status is fluid. Singles, young couples and young families tend to be financially strapped. The younger the breadwinners, the lower their income is likely to be. As the breadwinners progress through their careers, however, their incomes get higher. They may never get rich, but a lot more than 25% of households will at some point in their history make it into the top 25%. ((Mae West’s experience was probably like many Americans': “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.”))

College freshman tend to have parents who are in their forties and fifties. Overwhelmingly, those parents are much better off financially than they were in their twenties and thirties. Age has its privileges. As a result, even in an extraordinarily egalitarian society, one would expect a disproportionate number of college freshman to come from households in the top quartile of income. (The exception I would expect would be for community college students, who are often late starters, several years out of high school, and hence no longer part of their parents’ households.)

Carnevale and Rose are obviously not wrong that wealthier Americans are more likely to send their children to elite colleges than poorer Americans. Anyone who have ever attended (or even set foot on) a highly-selective college surely noticed that many of the students are well-heeled-–sometimes incredibly so. (As a 17-year-old college freshman from a blue-collar neighborhood, I was a little intimidated by some of the wealthier students at Northwestern University, until I realized I was killing them on the exams.) If, however, these figures do not take into consideration this “age factor” (which I suspect is substantial), then there is reason to take them with a grain of salt. I look through the article and found no evidence that this was taken into consideration, and one would think that if the authors did go to that trouble, they would have said so.

Anyway, more on class-based affirmative action later ....