An entrance to the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many colleges...

An entrance to the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many colleges and universities are searching for legal alternatives to preserve racial diversity on campus after last June’s Supreme Court decision. Credit: AP/Steven Senne

Can a class-based approach to affirmative action pick up where recently legally prohibited race-based policies left off? In theory, yes, if colleges give a substantial admissions boost to lower-income students. But it still won’t work for an important reason: It’s too expensive.

Many colleges and universities are searching for legal alternatives to preserve racial diversity on campus after last June’s Supreme Court decision. The idea that class-based affirmative action could boost racial diversity is straightforward. After all, Black, Latino and Native American students are more likely to grow up in lower-income families than their White counterparts.

Using class-based affirmative action to increase representation of low-income students would offer benefits beyond racial diversity. It would promote upward mobility because lower-income students benefit the most from attending selective colleges. It would also produce college classes that more closely reflect the socioeconomic distribution of the country.

But swapping class for race isn’t as simple as it sounds.

Admissions are only half the battle: Class-based affirmative action policies will be effective only so far as additional lower-income students actually enroll - and therein lies the rub. Schools would need to considerably expand their financial aid programs to support an influx of low-income students. And that’s a price that most colleges can’t afford.

We’ve crunched the numbers. In a new report for Brookings, we simulated several class-based affirmative action policies to understand their potential effects on racial diversity, as well as to estimate how much they would cost.

The math could work. We looked at selective schools that were likely to use affirmative action before the court’s decision. These schools enroll about 15 percent of full-time, dependent students at four-year institutions. We found that giving an admissions “bump” to lower-income students might maintain current levels of racial diversity.

But to achieve that outcome, the bump would have to be very large. In a simulation in which we gave lower-income applicants an extra 200 points on their SAT scores, selective colleges were able to maintain percentages of Black and Latino students near current levels - around 20 percent of enrollees.

This would also create a big change to the mix of students enrolled at these schools: In such a scenario, around half of admitted students would be lower-income, compared with roughly one-quarter now.

Our analysis also suggested that getting more low-income students to enroll will be difficult. Many students already struggle to pay for college. More than one-third of students at these selective institutions bear educational expenses that are $10,000 or more beyond what they can afford - and this is accounting for financial aid.

This shortfall exists despite the $10 billion in need-based financial aid provided by these selective institutions. Even with all that spending, less than 30 percent of aid-eligible students enrolled in selective colleges receive enough support to cover their full financial need.

An influx of low-income students would cost billions more. We estimate that an additional $7.8 billion in financial aid would be needed to sustain current levels of racial diversity under a class-based affirmative action program.

Only a handful of elite universities - Harvard, Princeton and the like - have endowments large enough to cover this additional expense. Less wealthy schools - the ones that already struggle to provide enough aid to meet their students’ financial needs - probably wouldn’t be able to raise the necessary funds. Of course, affordability problems are not limited to students attending the selective four-year colleges we focus on in our report.

Policy changes to make college more affordable are urgently needed. Doubling the maximum Pell Grant would be a good start - but even then, many selective colleges would struggle to enroll racially diverse classes. Unfortunately, class-based affirmative action is simply not a realistic replacement for a race-based policy.

Phillip Levine is a professor at Wellesley College and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sarah Reber is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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