Opinion: Carolina Beat

No. 749: Forget ‘Economic Diversity,’ Let’s Hit the Books Instead

If you follow trends in higher education at all, you know that for quite a few years now, college and university administrators have been on a “diversity” kick. Having convinced themselves that their schools would be somehow better if, instead of just admitting the most scholastically qualified students, they tried to engineer the student body so it would be “more representative of America.” That’s the euphemistic way of saying that they wanted to have quotas for various preferred ethnic or cultural groups.

Last year’s big Supreme Court decision in the University of Michigan case gave administrators the green light to continue playing the preferences game. It was all right, a strongly divided court ruled, for schools to admit some students with poorer academic qualifications over others with much better qualifications as long as it was done to obtain the supposed educational benefits of having a “diverse” student body.

I’m not going to refight that battle. What I want to focus on is a new front that some people want to open up in the war for the perfectly diverse campus — the insistence that schools now take “economic diversity” into consideration. Most colleges, and especially the most prestigious ones, just don’t have enough students who come from poor and “working class” homes. Therefore, they aren’t as diverse as they should be. Something must be done!

In a recent book, Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation comes out in favor of “affirmative action” to substantially raise the percentages of students from lower- income households. He calls such students “America’s Untapped Resource.” (That’s the title of the book, by the way.) Kahlenberg laments, “To date, selective colleges have failed to make economic diversity a priority…”
That’s correct, but why should they?

Instead of arguing, as the University of Michigan did, that there would be better learning on campus if top schools were to admit a quota of students from poor homes, Kahlenberg sees the benefits as stemming from good old socialist egalitarianism. “Will we ever squarely face up to the fundamental inequalities rooted in economic class?” he asks plaintively. Kahlenberg’s implicit assumption is that economic classes would become less pronounced and America would be a fairer nation if only selective schools would stop fixating just on racial diversity and start paying attention to economic diversity too.

Regarding race, many colleges and universities insist that, to paraphrase Orwell, “all students are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Kahlenberg would have us extend that idea to economic status. If we have two otherwise equally-qualified students, but one is from a lower economic level, then we ought to favor the latter.

I doubt that there are any grounds for that generalization, but if a college has two equally capable applicants and prefers to admit the student from the lower-income household, that’s fine. The trouble is that, just as is the case with racial preferences, economic diversity wouldn’t have much impact if it was confined only to coin-toss admission decisions. To significantly increase the percentage of lower-income students on campus, the admission policy would have to be changed to give those students a preference even when they were markedly less capable academically. To fulfill racial quotas, many high-scoring white and Asian students are rejected to make room for students who claim preferred minority status, even though the latter are much less prepared for college work. Trying to increase “economic diversity” would have the same results.

Doesn’t it matter where a student goes to college? Not much. He can learn calculus, English, physics, history, or any other subject just as well at an “ordinary” school as at an “elite” one. A professor at Duke may be paid twice as much as a professor at a less-prestigious school, but that doesn’t mean that a Duke education is twice as good. What the individual makes of himself in life depends hardly at all on the institution that prints his diploma. It depends on his ambition and inner qualities.

Higher education in America has already strayed a long way from its educational mission. At many institutions, the curriculum has been watered down and grades inflated as a consequence of admitting large numbers of students who are significantly less well-prepared for college work than others. That would only be exacerbated by the notion that we need to have “economic diversity” in addition to all the other kinds of diversity that are so much in vogue.

Let’s hope that colleges and universities in North Carolina ignore this call for yet more social engineering and start getting back to teaching students the things that matter.