College Admission: Race-conscious But Need-blind

Posted by Shamus Khan

How need-blind admission ignores the plight of poverty.

“Need-blind” admission is often considered the gold standard for colleges and universities. Those fortunate colleges that can claim to use such admission policies are those that represent the true promise of our nation: one where hard work and talent, not the background of the applicant, matters. Yet need-blind admission is a farce. It is an aptly named policy, one where colleges are blind to the disadvantages of poverty or, better, willfully blind to the advantages of wealth.  

With these practices, applicants who come from poor backgrounds are placed on an equal field as those who come from rich backgrounds. Never mind they never had private tutors, their parents likely did not attend college, they never spent summers at enrichment camps, weekends taking piano lessons, or vacations enjoying cultural tours of Europe. They are also more likely to have worked through school and, in all likelihood, attended a school that was underfunded.

Imagine for a moment if my university proposed that it be, say, “color blind” in its admissions. What would happen? There would, no doubt, be outrage in liberal America. And there would be tremendous impact on the racial composition of our student body. In their work, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford show the racial advantages afforded to different racial groups. Imagine you have two otherwise equal candidates—one is black, one is white. What is the impact of being black on one’s chances of being admitted? It's equivalent to 340 points on a 1,600 point SAT. Being Latino gets you 130 points and being Asian gets you a penalty of 140 points.

Colleges are clearly taking race into account in admissions. This is a policy I agree with. In 1951, blacks made up approximately 0.8 percent of the students at elite colleges. Today, they make up about 8 percent of Ivy League students. Undertaking this kind of transformation has meant recognizing the impact of race on a student’s life chances—in particular, its impact on early life opportunities. The result has been nothing short of a revolution in the racial composition of elite colleges, one made possible through “race conscious” admissions practices. To undo these practices would be to bring us much closer to the racial composition of the 1950s (with the exception of a massive increase in Asian students).

Why are colleges taking race into account but not class? Why are they race conscious but need blind? Why are students awarded or punished based on the wealth of their families?

For colleges, being economically representative of our nation would spell financial ruin.  Let me use my own university as an example. (The reader should note: Columbia University is one of the “best” elite universities in the nation when it comes to its class composition.) Half of our student body comes from a family that is able to pay the $55,000 in total expenses for a year at Columbia. It represents more than the yearly earnings of the average American family. It is such a staggering amount of money that even if a family makes $150,000 a year—placing them within the wealthiest 5 percent of our nation’s earners—they are still likely to receive some financial assistance.

Further, about half our students come from among the richest 5 percent of Americans. And to change our admissions practices to be economically representative of our nation would add well over $150,000,000 to our annual financial aid budget (a move that would increase our financial aid three-fold). Given its current expenditures, Columbia cannot afford to be economically diverse. For colleges, using race as a proxy for diversity is far less expensive than using race and class.  

Elite schools are disproportionately a place for the rich. Unlike the comparably hopeful story about the racial composition of colleges, the class composition of our top colleges is only getting worse. In the last 30 years, the number of students from the poorest 25 percent of American families attending top colleges has held steady at 10 percent. At the same time, the richest 25 percent of American earners are taking up more and more seats.  

There is a missing revolution in our nation: one in which poor and average Americans can have a fighting chance of acquiring the kind of education and advantages that elite education provides.

As a regular contributor to GOOD, I will think through the role of elites in our nation and the impact of elite schooling on this process. I encourage you to respond with comments, questions, or critiques. I will try to address them as the series unfolds.  

Shamus Khan is an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School.