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"Beyond Admissions,"

by Olatunde Johnson May/June 2014 issue of Poverty & Race

Professor Sheryll Cashin is no doubt right when she argues in her new book, Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America (Beacon 2014), that place should be a factor in higher education admissions policy. Concentrated poverty and growing economic segregation contributed to vast inequalities in the spatial distribution of opportunity. The social science is quite clear that neighborhood disadvantage compounds and intensifies class- or income-based disadvantage. For this reason, admissions practices that focus broadly on class and socioeconomic disadvantage would be incomplete without attention to geography. Cashin urges admissions programs that more robustly consider merit, rather than just perpetuating privilege, and her proposal could be a useful component of a much larger effort to make college more accessible to low-income students.

Yet in suggesting a new framework that should now supplant race, the proposal might go too far and, at the same time, not far enough. On the one hand, there is a risk of now fetishizing “place” in admissions, obscuring the individualized, holistic review that should properly characterize admissions. On the other hand, in its focus on higher education admissions, the proposal is far too modest an intervention for addressing the most pressing and severe problems of neighborhood inequality.

As to the first point, Cashin argues that race is too rough a proxy for the structural disadvantages that many children of color actually endure. Yet, if there is concern about relying on rough proxies for disadvantage, we should also want to avoid any formulaic application of “place.” Cashin offers that with place-based affirmative action, a middle-class family could move into a poor neighborhood to gain an advantage in admissions. Yet I believe this example should make us worry about replacing race with “place” as a new talisman. There is a wholesale aspect of admissions, to be sure—one that perhaps makes percentage plans the solution for large university systems. But many institutions also focus on the retail version of admissions. As highlighted by several liberal arts colleges in their amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the Fisher v. Texas case, many schools aim to operate a holistic admissions program that considers an applicant’s talents and potential contributions in light of their full background and social context. Such a textured evaluation of merit and experience should certainly encompass neighborhood, but it should also avoid a mechanistic application of this factor.Admissions practices should be textured and flexible enough to evaluate the potential contributions of a low-income student from a public housing project in a rapidly gentrifying zipcode, as well as a middle-class student who—by virtue of race discrimination in housing or racialized wealth disparities —attends a high-poverty, relatively under-resourced neighborhood school.

Conversely, the proposal does not go far enough. Including place in higher education admissions is too modest a solution to the structural impediments facing those most disadvantaged by concentrated poverty. Affirmative action in admissions is primarily the work of very elite institutions. Opening the doors of these elite institutions to low-income students would require rethinking a range of factors, including current recruitment strategies for high-achieving low-income students, financial aid policies, systems for transferring from two-year and community colleges, as well as resources and support needed to retain low-income students. On the question of recruitment, a recent report by economists Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner highlighted that many high-achieving low-income students do not even apply to elite institutions. The authors’ study finds promising a recent intervention in partnership with the College Board to provide students with customized information on the application process, college costs and non-paperwork application fee waivers.

In addition, more is needed beyond admissions practices to help students from the most disadvantaged, under-resourced neighborhoods prepare for college. A meaningful effort would entail increased investments in quality preschool and K-12 education, as well as support for other programs and resources often lacking in the poorest neighborhoods. Indeed, the dire data on the effects of neighborhoods on achievement and life chances should lead us to go much further, to radically remake the very landscape of opportunity. Our housing and social policy should aim to make disappear the geographic disadvantage and inequality that makes Cashin’s proposal necessary. We should put in place policies that promote economic integration and revitalization of poor neighborhoods, provide low-income and low-wealth families access to traditionally higher-income neighborhoods, and reduce inequality in wealth and income.

One might argue that the work of remaking poor schools or neighborhoods is for other societal institutions, not universities. But that would be letting universities off the hook. In an amicus brief that I co-authored in the Fisher v. Texas case with my colleague Professor Susan Sturm, we highlighted that admissions is one element of the broader role that universities can play in advancing opportunity. Written on behalf of the National League of Cities, the Anchor Institutions Task Force and other groups, the brief highlighted the work of universities in partnership with metropolitan communities to help improve failing schools, rebuild housing and other infrastructure, and advance learning and innovation in science and technology. If we are going to shift the conversation now to “place,” we should remember that universities are rooted in place and can help remake those places. Universities can build bridges that extend far beyond admissions practices to help prepare students to attend their colleges; through their research, outreach, development, and employment they can contribute to the revitalization of the neighborhoods that surround them.

I suspect that Cashin would not entirely disagree with these friendly critiques. Cashin’s goal, I imagine, is to change the fundamental structure of disadvantage— admissions practice is but one step along that route. Diversity programs may be more popular than Cashin allows— a recent Pew poll found that 63% of Americans support race-based affirmative action in higher education. Yet, there is much to Cashin’s suggestion that fighting in courts and in the public domain about race-based affirmative action has become unproductive. Accordingly, I am hopeful that Cashin’s proposal will contribute to an important discussion on how to achieve greater inclusion in higher education. My additional hope is that transformational policies that extend far beyond affirmative action will follow as well.

Olatunde Johnson is Jerome B. Sherman Professor of Law and Vice-Dean for Intellectual Life at Columbia Law School and PRRAC’s Board Chair.

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