A new mix for classroom diversity

College students

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Kai Ryssdal: We're spending some time this week as classes get going taking a look at education -- K through 12 and beyond. Yesterday, it was the rising cost of college. How students are turning to different kinds of schools to get more for their money. Today, affirmative action, race-based and otherwise.

From North Carolina Public Radio, Dave DeWitt reports some supporters of traditional affirmative action now see a different way of creating diverse student bodies.


Dave DeWitt: Steve Farmer knows every freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Maybe not personally, or even by name, but he knows their academic credentials. As director of admissions, he and his staff carefully review every file from every potential student.

Farmer: We pay attention to test scores, we pay attention to GPAs, we pay attention to ranks in class, we pay attention to grades.

UNC accepts about 7,000 applicants, and a little more than half enroll. Like most schools, UNC considers race in filling those slots.

Sometimes, parents call Steve Farmer and they focus on that one checked box tucked deep inside that large file as the reason their child didn't make the cut.

Farmer: Why, of all the millions of other things, it might have contributed to an admission decision, are people quick to fasten on affirmative action or race-conscious admissions or again, that African-American child down the street as the reason why a child didn't get in.

Race-conscious admissions is, of course, legal, but it's not very popular. In a recent poll, Americans disagreed with race-based affirmative action 2-to-1, but overwhelmingly supported giving those same preferences to low-income students.

Richard Kahlenberg believes in that. He's a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Richard Kahlenberg: To my mind, if your admissions decision comes down to the question of admitting a African-American who is the son of a doctor, or a white student whose mother is a waitress, I think fairness dictates that we give an edge to the more disadvantaged student.

It can be hard for people to separate socio-economic class from race.

Mycah Wilson just graduated with honors from North Carolina State. She's the daughter of two professionals.

Mycah Wilson: I'll be honest: it's kind of hard for me to meet a white person or really, truly recognize that there are white students here who aren't driving those brand-new cars and everything like that. And I think that's something society has made me feel, OK -- white: rich; black: poor.

The truth is, low-income whites outnumber low-income African-Americans. So a system based solely on income would seem to favor poor whites.

Charles Daye is a law professor at UNC. He says one group that would be harmed is low-income African Americans who are accepted.

Charles Daye: What you might do is take a lower-income black kid in preference to a higher-income black kid, because you can't take race into account. So you'd get the student in your school who is actually less well-equipped to survive and to prosper.

One of Daye's classes is housing law. Only a few are students of color. It's not obvious who comes from low-income backgrounds, but those in the class know.

Sven Deal is in his third year. He says classmates pick up on each others' experiences pretty quickly, and learn from each other.

Sven Deal: I had an interview at a law firm, and they asked me: "We have a diverse set of clients, we don't have just people that can, you know, pay a lot of money. What skills do you have in that regard that are gonna help you to relate to those clients?" And I had an easy answer, because that has been my educational experience throughout elementary school all the way through now.

The Supreme Court ruled in June that schools, grades K through 12, can no longer allocate students based on race.

The public school system in Wake County, North Carolina is ahead of the curve. Seven years ago, the school system that serves Raleigh and its suburbs adopted a diversity plan based on income. Colleges and universities are keeping an eye on that approach, as many observers believe affirmative action in higher education will be outlawed soon.

Richard Kahlenberg compares programs like Wake County's to our progressive income tax system in which we tax the wealthy at a higher rate than those who earn less. Kahlenberg says this is fair, and legally justifiable.

Kahlenberg: If, by contrast, we had a system in which different races were taxed at different levels, if whites were taxed at a higher marginal rate than African Americans or Latinos, there'd be a huge legal problem with that approach.

Wake County put the program in place in 2000, and since then, students at every income level have improved academically. The school system is growing explosively, but the district has maintained economic and racial diversity in many schools. This fall, up to 30 U.S. school districts will consider similar models.

In Chapel Hill, I'm Dave Dewitt for Marketplace.

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