Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Maimon Schwarzschild Challenges Class Based Affirmative Action

Maimon Schwarzschild's article, A Class Act? Social Class Affirmative Action and Higher Education, 50 San Diego L. Rev. 441 (May-June 2013), is up on westlaw now.  She argues that, while class based affirmative action in higher education may have some alure due to the legal challenges that race based affirmative action draws, class based affirmative action is problematic from a policy and justice standpoint.  She writes:

But there are good reasons to think twice about class-based affirmative action. Some of the problems with class preference are common to any educational preference based on group membership rather than educational qualifications. But some of the most important reasons for caution are specific to preferences based on social class.

Comparing class preferences with racial preferences helps to point up some of the reasons for the allure of class preferences but also points up some of the problems. A crucial consideration is the question of who is to receive class preference. For example, what about immigrants and their children? In general, social class is difficult to define, and this very difficulty would confer great discretion and power on faculties and academic administrators who undertake to bestow class preferences: discretion that would be open to abuse for political, ideological, and other ends. Finally, there is the question of whether preferential treatment is necessary to increase educational opportunities for the less privileged or whether the call for class preferences reflects a mindset inimical to impartial standards and prone to preferences as a first rather than a last resort.

I am afraid, however, that she misses one of the major premises behind both racial and socioeconomic affirmative action.  These policies are not simply to "preference" the underrepresented group, nor to discount "educational qualifications."  Rather, when used properly, considerations of race and poverty are an attempt to better identify educational qualifications. Because socioeconomic and racial bias are "cooked into" the typical measures of educational qualifications, such as the SAT, considering race and poverty and necessary to compare apples to apples.  More bluntly, a 770 score by a high income student on the reading portion of the SAT is not equivalent to a 770 by a low income score.  Social science would indicate that the low-income student with the same score most likely has more aptitude than the wealth student.  It is hard to be precise with generalized comparisons, but low income student with a 710 might likewise have more capacity.  

As Richard Kahlenberg, similarly, notes: "Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University found that the most socioeconomically disadvantaged student scores 399 points lower on average on the combined math and verbal SAT than the most socioeconomically advantaged student.  A socioeconomically disadvantaged student who beats the odds and scores fairly well despite the obstacles she faces is likely to have more potential in the long run than a student who has been given all sorts of advantages in life.  To be genuinely meritocratic, we need to consider socioeconomic status."

For more on these points, also see Joseph Soares, SAT Wars.  Of course, there are various other reasons, including the educational benefits of diversity, that run counter to Schwarschild's arguments as well.



Higher education, Racial Integration and Diversity | Permalink


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