Redefining Campus Diversity

Christian Science Monitor, April 14, 2008

Across America, the nation’s select colleges are expanding their concept of diversity. It’s not just about improving racial and ethnic balance on campus, but also increasing the percentage of low-income students—which is even lower than for minorities. Both are important goals.

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Opening the university gates to make it possible for more low-income students to attend still means shutting out otherwise qualified students. But voters perceive discrimination based on income as more acceptable than racial preferences. And there are no legal hurdles.

Attuned, selective colleges and universities are making a greater effort to improve income mix and still keep an eye on racial diversity.

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Last fall, 19 of the country’s largest public university systems pledged to halve the achievement gap for minority and low-income students by improving their college attendance and graduation rates.

And the nation now has a proven model in Texas, which has found a legal way to increase income, geographic, and racial variety—and academic performance. The University of Texas guarantees admission to the top 10 percent of state high schools. It sweeps rural and urban schools, poor and wealthy, minorities and whites. (The above-mentioned lawsuit challenges the part of admissions that still uses racial preferences).

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A 2003 study by the Century Foundation found that African-Americans and Hispanics each constitute only 6 percent of incoming freshmen at the nation’s 146 most select schools (as defined by the Barron’s guide). Yet the percent of blacks and Hispanics among 18-year-olds is more than twice that. Income disparity was even worse: only 3 percent of all the freshmen were from the poorest quarter of the population.

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