The End of Affirmative Action in College Admissions: Bad for the Middle Class?

If the recent Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin ultimately leads to a prohibition on using race-conscious factors in college admissions, one counter-intuitive result could be that middle-class applicants of all races may find it more difficult to get into selective public institutions.

Currently, UT Austin is required to allocate 75 percent of its freshmen spaces to students who graduate in the top 8 percent of their high school classes (2013-2014 academic year).  The remainder of the places may be filled with some consideration given to an applicant’s race, along with many other factors, including socioeconomic status.

Many of the students who are automatically admitted through the top 8 percent formula come from minimally desegregated high schools in poor urban and rural areas of the state, so the automatic formula is a proxy for increasing the enrollment of minority students, many from Dallas, Houston, and the Rio Grande Valley.   About 37 percent of the automatic admits are minority students.

The second group–the 25 percent who do not have to be in the top 8 percent of their high school classes–includes a much higher proportion of students who come from more rigorous high schools.  The “holistic” process utilized to admit these students emphasizes test scores, high school gpa, quality of the high school, leadership, extracurricular activities, work, etc., along with special factors, including race.  But only about 22 percent of holistic admits are minority students.

The interesting thing about the holistic process is that, even though a smaller percentage of minorities are admitted this way, the socioeconomic status of these students is higher, meaning that they “diversify diversity” by including minority students from all socioeconomic levels in the university population.  Aside from being a way to counter racial stereotypes that may be held by white students, these minority students also pay more of the costs of attending UT Austin.

Many high-achieving students of all races also gain admission through the holistic process.  Students at demanding high schools may not rank in the top 8 percent, but many have high SAT scores and even have gpas that are higher than many of the automatic admits.  (The average SAT scores of holistic admits in a recent year was 1902, but for automatic admits the average was 1812.)

For legal purposes, the automatic admission process is considered “race neutral,” and so would likely be allowed to continue if “race conscious” plans are eventually disallowed.  But since the automatic plans are proxies for using race, and because they are also proxies for admitting lower-income students, the use of automatic admission practices alone would leave less room for many high-achieving students of all races who come from strong schools in middle class or high income districts.

The admission of more low-income students will all place greater demands on the ability of the universities to provide financial support to middle-class students.

The University of Colorado at Boulder has experimented with a more sophisticated admissions system that provides “boosts” to applicants who have some degree of disadvantage coupled with evidence of over-achievement.  Highly-qualified applicants who are not disadvantaged are not penalized, yet the boosts for other applicants will still yield a student body with more lower-income students.  Again, added pressure on financial resources is one result.

The Colorado plan is a laudable attempt to increase access, promote diversity, and avoid overt racial considerations.  The point of this article is not to criticize these goals but only to point out the possible impact that the changes in college admissions could have on the middle class.

So in the end, while some non-minority families might complain about what they see as favoritism in current race-conscious practices, the change to race-neutral options might make it even more difficult for middle-class students to gain entrance to selective schools and receive some financial assistance in the process.