Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Colleges urged to use socioeconomic affirmative action

By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
June 16, 2010

Colleges and universities should adopt affirmative-action policies based on socioeconomic status, argues a new report that finds the most disadvantaged students on average score 784 points lower on the SAT than those from the wealthiest, most educated families.

Despite recent efforts by about 100 selective colleges to provide more need-based aid and improve graduation rates of recipients, low-income and minority students are increasingly concentrated in the least selective schools, the report says.

"It doesn't do any good to offer a generous financial aid package to low-income students if you don't also admit them," says Richard Kahlenberg, a longtime advocate of class-based preferences in admissions, and editor of Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College, published today by the Century Foundation.

A 2003 Supreme Court ruling allows colleges to consider race in admissions, but the SAT research finds that socioeconomic factors, such as parents' education and income, contribute significantly to differences in student scores.

Kahlenberg says he hopes the findings, along with a Texas lawsuit challenging racial preferences, push admissions offices to put more weight on socioeconomic factors. But some admissions officials say that would merely shift the terms of the debate.

"Somebody who believes his or her child is entitled to a space (in a school's freshman class) doesn't care whether that child's space is taken by a student of color or by a student from the other side of the tracks," says Steven Farmer, undergraduate admissions director at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The school, the first public university to create a financial aid plan that ensures that needy students graduate debt-free, considers standardized scores in admission. But, Farmer says, "we take into account the whole of the student's circumstances."

One longtime SAT critic says it would be easier to downplay test scores. More than 800 colleges have done so; in recent years, a number of selective schools have made it optional.

"Class-based affirmative action is a complicated solution. So far, it lacks a track record of success," says Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for the non-profit National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

But Kahlenberg says the point is not "to get rid of the SAT but to consider SAT scores in the context of the obstacles that students have had to overcome."

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