WASHINGTON — The most "underrepresented" group of Americans at the nation's top colleges and universities is not African Americans or Latinos, but students from low-income families, according to a little-noted report released last week.
Only 3% of freshmen at the 146 most selective colleges and universities come from families in the bottom quarter of Americans ranked by income. About 12% of the students on these campuses are black or Latino.
"There is even less socioeconomic diversity than racial or ethnic diversity at the most selective colleges," said Anthony P. Carnevale, vice president of the Educational Testing Service and a co-author of the study. "There are four times as many African American and Hispanic students as there are students from the lowest [socioeconomic status] quartile."
The Supreme Court debate over the admissions policies at the University of Michigan put a spotlight again on the fact that African Americans and Latinos are "underrepresented" at the upper reaches of higher education, even after three decades of affirmative action.
Carnevale's study looked at who attends the nation's most selective four-year colleges, as ranked by Barron's Guide to Colleges.
Together, blacks and Latinos make up 28% of the nation's 18-year-olds, but they each comprise 6% of the entering classes at these schools.
The picture is bleaker for those who come from the lower half of the income spectrum, regardless of their race or ethnic heritage. Only 10% of the entering class at these sought-after schools is made up of students from the bottom half of the income scale, Carnevale found.
Give 'Strivers' a Chance
Carnevale is among a small group of reformers who has pressed the idea of "class-based affirmative action." Public opinion surveys show most people, even if they are skeptical of affirmative action based on race, strongly support giving extra help to students who have overcome disadvantages, he said.
"Opportunity and upward mobility is what America is all about. Americans want strivers to be given a chance," he said. "But we don't like to talk about class anymore. We know from our testing that a lot of kids out there are qualified to go to these schools, but they don't, and the truth is, nobody much gives a damn about it."
The cost is one barrier. Federal aid for low-income students has not kept pace with the rising costs of higher education.
While college officials say they give both extra consideration and aid to students from poor families, Carnevale said the national data do not bear that out.
If admissions to the top colleges tracked test scores and grades, the percentage of students from families with below-average incomes would rise substantially, he said.
Harvard Law School professor C. Lani Guinier agreed that the admissions policies of the top colleges are part of a "the great inequality machine. There is tremendous bias in favor of wealth," and not just because parents of children from affluent homes can pay the high cost of the best colleges.
"In testing, people talk about the 'Volvo effect,' " she said. "The test scores correlate with family affluence." No wonder then three-fourths of entering students at the top colleges come from the top fourth of the income spectrum, she said, citing another finding of Carnevale's.
Even proponents are divided. Some, like Carnevale, say reaching out to low-income whites and blacks should be added to traditional policies that seek out promising black and Latino students.
Others say economics and social class should replace the current focus on race and ethnicity.
Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a research center in New York that sponsored Carnevale's study, is a leading advocate of affirmative action based on economics.
"We have lost focus on fairness in the debate over affirmative action. Americans see admission to these selective colleges as the ticket to the good life. So it is very important that the process is fair," he said. "Americans want to be fair, but they think the child of an affluent black doctor is not the one who most needs a break."
The notion of "diversity" has been defined too narrowly, he argued in a recent paper. "Diversity should be defined broadly, to value differences in both economic and racial backgrounds, to include kids from trailer homes and ghettos and barrios as well as suburban minorities," he said.
Kahlenberg said the most disadvantaged students in America are those whose parents did not graduate from high school, who grew up in poor neighborhoods, went to school with other low-income students, and whose family income is below $25,000 a year.
One of the most thorough tests of class-based affirmative action came at the UCLA School of Law. After California voters barred the use of race as admissions criterion, the University of California campuses looked for alternatives that would create diversity among the students.