Race-conscious affirmative action programs in college admissions have played an important role in narrowing college enrollment gaps among whites, African-Americans and Hispanics. But these programs now face the possibility of being curtailed or even ended by a decision expected from the U.S. Supreme Court in the next few weeks. 

If the high court places new limits on race-conscious affirmative action in admissions, the best way to preserve racial and ethnic diversity would be for the schools to launch aggressive programs to increase their income diversity. Since African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately low-income, they would benefit most from such a move.

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While the white poverty rate in the U.S. was 10 percent in 2013, the Hispanic poverty rate was 24 percent and the African-American rate was 26 percent, according to a study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

The case before the Supreme Court is Fisher v. University of Texas, in which a student claimed that race-conscious affirmative action policies denied her admission to the university because she is white. The claim has also been made that affirmative action today has become an “upper-middle class benefit” rather than a response to counteract discrimination against minorities.

In a sign of welcome progress, the college enrollment gap among racial and ethnic groups has actually been shrinking. The National Center for Education Statistics found that 27 percent of whites ages 18 to 24 – but only 13 percent of blacks – were enrolled in a college or university in 1967. But by 2012, 42 percent of whites and 36 percent of blacks in the same age group were in college. Enrollment of Hispanics in the same age bracket, first measured separately in 1972 at 13 percent, rose to 37 percent in 2012. That’s rather amazing progress.

Restricting or banning race-conscious admissions could result in steep drops in college enrollment for black and Hispanic students. This would lead to diminished career prospects and lower lifetime earnings for many, and reduce racial and ethnic diversity at colleges precisely at a time when the U.S. population is growing more diverse.

But increasing admissions of low-income students could counter the negative effects of a Supreme Court decision significantly limiting race-conscious admissions. This is because income is now a better predictor than race or ethnicity in determining whether a student will go to college and how well the student will ultimately do once admitted.

As a result, if colleges focused on increasing enrollment of high-achieving students from low-income families in a race-blind manner, they could actually create as much or more racial and ethnic diversity in American colleges than now exists. This was a key finding in a study issued earlier this year by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I am executive director.

The message is clear: levels of education and poverty are connected. When education goes up, poverty goes down. In a break with history, today there are more dramatic and disturbing differences in educational attainment based on family income than on race or ethnicity. Our society has truly changed.

According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the high school dropout rate for young people from families in the lowest quartile of incomes was more than three times higher than the dropout rate of students from the wealthiest quartile. The college graduation rate also sharply differs by income. A 2014 White House report titled “Increasing Opportunity for Low-Income Students” states: “While half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, just 1 in 10 people from low-income families do.”

America should be the Land of Opportunity for all not just for the wealthy. If the Supreme Court tightens restrictions on the use of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions, the best path to preserve diversity based on race and ethnicity would be to remove barriers to the enrollment of more academically capable low-income students at our nation’s colleges and universities. It would also open the door to opportunity to the deserving poor.


Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation