Do We Need Class-Based Affirmative Action?

George Leef

I was recently asked to respond to that question for The Chronicle Review, prompted by a recent study finding that many college students who drop out say that the reason they did so was too much pressure to work to earn money. Roger Clegg and I were the Grinches in the piece. There was a tight word limit on comments and there are some points I think worth adding. First, how do we really know why a student drops out? It is easy and I would think tempting for a student who just couldn't or wouldn't handle the academic work to save face by stating that financial pressure was the reason for leaving school. Second, instituting class-based affirmative action wouldn't do anything for poor people (or more accurately, poor people who have children who can get into college) as a group. The tendency of leftists to look at the world in terms of groups (and also to judge policies by their intentions) gets in the way of understanding the true impact of affirmative action. Suppose that all the selective schools decided that they wanted a quota of, say, 10 percent SES (socio-economic status) admits. That would be a small percentage of the total number of students from lower income households who go to college, and those given this preference would undoubtedly be the best of those students -- kids who probably could handle the workload at the non-selective colleges where they'd otherwise enroll. At the same time as a few students are admitted on SES grounds, equal numbers of non-poor students will have to enroll at a less selective institution. Going to a more selective school might be of a slight benefit to those few who are chosen to fill SES quotas (or it might actually prove harmful on "mismatch" and cost grounds), but it doesn't make the mass of poorer people one bit better off.

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