The Philadelphia Inquirer Commentary: Colleges are already struggling with diversity

Catharine B. Hill, president, Vassar College

Commentary appears in The Philadelphia Inquirer Higher Education News:

The Supreme Court's decision in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case finally arrived, with a call for lower courts to now decide whether universities' admissions policies involving race are tailored narrowly enough. A university is to demonstrate, "before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice."

In anticipation of this decision, many have been arguing that socioeconomic status, rather than race, can be used as an alternative to effectively support diversity in higher education. The Supreme Court's decision in Fisher may bolster these arguments, but the state of affairs for low- and middle-income students at colleges and universities should give us pause.

Colleges and universities are not doing a very good job of making higher education available to lower- and middle-income families, and suggesting we will somehow figure out how to do so were affirmative action to be restricted is misleading. As the lower courts reconsider this case, I hope the fact that we have not achieved socioeconomic diversity is enough to demonstrate that it is not a "workable race-neutral" alternative to race-based affirmative action.

Many institutions are not seeking lower-income students. They either charge prohibitively high prices or else offer low prices to a very few students. Recent studies have revived calls to make tuition free for everyone, especially those attending public institutions or one of the private institutions with sizable endowments. But free tuition makes no sense as a solution to the challenges facing American higher education.

Not charging tuition may be perceived as one way to make sure that lower-income students can attend college. The low-tuition policies of many state universities were historically justified on these grounds. Yet we must recognize that such policies involve large subsidies for higher-income students as well.

With declining state appropriations for higher education and fiscal challenges at the federal level, there isn't enough political commitment to make "free" college possible, regardless of whether the nation could afford it. Absent this commitment, restricting affirmative action will lead to schools doing poorly on both racial and socioeconomic diversity, moving our country in the wrong direction in terms of access to economic and social mobility.

And if we aren't going to allocate more resources, we must reallocate existing subsidies to higher education. In light of findings from the recent New America Foundation report "Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind," it is clear that we need to figure out how to encourage greater low- and middle-income access.

Higher education may not be a good investment for all, but it also cannot be a good investment solely for the children of high-income families if America is to remain committed to the concepts of equal opportunity and social mobility. The recent example of Cooper Union's very difficult decision to institute tuition should be respected for protecting broad student access. While many schools are competing for wealthier students by increasing merit-based financial aid, Cooper Union is instead strengthening its commitment to making its education available to talented lower- and middle-income students through need-based financial aid. "Free tuition," regardless of family income, often functions as merit aid for wealthier students.

The New America Foundation reported that some schools are doing a good job of attracting low- and middle-income students, including Amherst and Vassar, which have the highest shares of Pell Grant recipients among the liberal arts colleges. Berea College admits only lower-income students. However, many of the pressures facing colleges and universities, both private and public, make a wealthier student look more attractive than a poor one, even if the poor one has equal or greater talents. That is why we are seeing increases in merit aid and reduced commitment to need-based aid. Public policy needs to change this equation, and tying the availability of federal and state subsidies to performance on low- and middle-income access would help.

If access to education is not sustained for students from different backgrounds, not only will income inequality continue to increase, but the likelihood that the children of lower- and middle-income families can make it into the upper-income brackets will decline significantly. All who value equal opportunity and what it has meant to America should be worried about this.

Greater socioeconomic diversity in higher education deserves both attention and resources. Whether a focus on socioeconomic diversity could substitute for successful affirmative action policies is really moot, because we do not have successful policies promoting socioeconomic diversity. To eliminate affirmative action policies that are working, by arguing that they can be replaced by something that doesn't exist, is at best misleading. The time to revisit affirmative action should be after we've addressed how to accomplish greater socioeconomic diversity in our colleges and universities, not before.