Affirmative action has been one of the most persistent flash points within higher education. White and Asian students often lament that this practice may deprive them of a spot in their preferred academic institution, while many black, Latino, and Native American students rejoice at the opportunity for preferential treatment in a country that has historically discriminated against them and their ancestors (and in some ways still does). While the idea of correcting for past wrongs inflicted upon historically marginalized groups by giving preferential treatment in college admissions is laudable, it has not lived up to the expectation that it would uplift significant portions of minority communities out of poverty. Furthermore, this practice has led to lawsuits, racial resentment and the stigmatization of minority college students as lacking the merit of their white and Asian peers.
Many well intentioned people who oppose race-based affirmative action point out that they advocate a more holistic approach, which doesn’t reduce disadvantage to an applicant’s race. For example, in 2018, one national poll conducted by WGBH (a Boston public broadcaster) found that, while only 24% of respondents agreed that race should be a factor in admissions, 58% agreed that overcoming hardships should be a factor in gaining admittance to academic institutions. A 2016 Gallup poll found that 63% of Americans oppose taking race into consideration in college admissions, while 61% favor using familial economic conditions. Whenever the question is asked, a clear majority of respondents seem to favor affirmative action on economic grounds, rather than racial ones.
In May 2019, the College Board (the non-profit outfit that administers the SAT) made a bold move in favor of a more holistic approach to judging hardship when they introduced the Environmental Context Dashboard. This approach would use data from the school (such as senior class size, percentage of free or reduced-price lunches, and availability of advanced placement courses) and data from the neighborhood(s) in which the student lives and the school is located (such as crime rates, poverty rates, vacancy rates, and percentage of adults with a college degree) to create an “adversity score” for each student. The score cannot be seen by students and runs on a 1 to 100 scale with 1 being the least disadvantaged and 100 the most. Race and gender are not among the thirty-one factors taken into account. An institution that acts as one of the primary gatekeepers to higher education has finally developed a way to create opportunity for those prospective college students who have many hurdles to overcome, without reducing their struggles to the single question of ethnicity. For their efforts, they received a tidal wave of opprobrium from all points of the political spectrum.
This solution to the twin issues of providing opportunity for those who need it, and addressing the pitfalls of the current gender and race-based affirmative action regimes seems to have satisfied almost no one. For left-leaning writers like André J. Washington and Daniel Hemel, excluding race from the adversity score misrepresents reality. For right-leaning writers like Heather MacDonald and Jason Richwine, this is just a back door to racial quotas to advance social justice over merit. Even more moderate voices, such as that of Thomas Chatterton Williams, have excoriated the Environmental Context Dashboard. Williams argues that, “the dehumanizing message of the new adversity index is that America’s young people are nothing but interchangeable sociological points of data—and the jagged complexity of an individual life somehow can be sanded down, quantified and fairly contrasted.”
What everyone other than Richard Kahlenberg seems to have missed is that the Environmental Context Dashboard highlights the fact that race is far from the only factor creating an uneven playing field for high school students. By taking thirty-one other factors into account, it provides a way for poor white students to have their obstacles recognized as legitimate, while allowing the state to offer benefits to truly needy minority students. The race-based affirmative action that has been at work in college admissions for decades privileges a black applicant whose parents are wealthy over a Russian immigrant child who spent her formative years on food stamps, had to learn a new language and ingratiate herself into a foreign culture. The high correlation between race and poverty means that the worries of those on the left who fear the effect this will have on the number of minority students at prestigious institutions are unfounded. It is likely that this new score will not change the number of black and Latino students attending highly selective schools like Harvard—though it may change what part of the socioeconomic spectrum the majority of them are from. Indeed, as Kahlenberg points out, 71% of black and Latino students currently attending Harvard come from relatively wealthy families. What is being recognized here is how a lack of resources can hinder a student’s ability to score as highly on the SATs as he would otherwise be capable of doing.
To be fair to the critics, the current conception of the adversity score has some very real flaws. As Darin Bartram points out, the possibility of gaming the system is a concern. For example, a smart student from a wealthy area could ostensibly transfer to a school from a poorer area with a magnet program, to inflate her adversity score. Furthermore, data on crime and poverty from the census is not always up to date, which could allow relatively affluent families who have moved into a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood to take advantage of statistics that would inflate their children’s adversity score. Using census tracts could also result in unfairly lumping poorer neighborhoods with mostly affluent communities. The system may also act as a disincentive for families who want to move their kids to the cheapest place they can find in a safer neighborhood, in order to give their children a better life. Correcting for these oversights should be among the College Board’s highest priorities going forward.
For all its problems, the Environmental Context Dashboard still provides a path forward, allowing us to abandon our monomaniacal focus on race and gender as the only obstacles a student may face. Kahlenberg concedes that his preferred rubric would include more individual family-level criteria, and I wholeheartedly agree. As Thomas Chatterton Williams points out in his New York Times piece, the complexities of each person’s experience cannot be reduced to the census block they live in. While ostensibly this would be corrected for in the personal statement, there is a legitimate fear that the adversity score could undercut personal stories like Williams’ struggle with an abusive parent, or his experiences facing racism as one of the few minority students in a mostly white school. Indeed, as André J. Washington and Daniel Hemel point out, black and Latino students often face unique discrimination when compared with their white counterparts—even if they go to the same school and have similarly affluent home lives.
Even if one were to concede that race should still play a role in admissions, affirmative action’s focus on race as the only relevant hurdle that a student has to overcome is woefully incomplete. We should all recognize that poverty, crime and lack of opportunities cross racial lines in ways that make a focus on one immutable characteristic inadequate at best, and divisive at worst. While there is a legitimate argument to be made that the adversity score as currently conceived fails in significant ways, it advances the notion that adversity is far more than a question of skin color.