I’ll be frank. There’s no great way to open any dialogue on conventional affirmative action. At best, it’s a necessary evil. Some view these policies as nothing more than reverse discrimination aimed at meeting arbitrary racial or gender quotas. For others they amount to measures that attempt to redress fundamental injustices in American history that account for present inequalities. Regardless of how you feel, chances are, you feel some way about it.

At Penn and across higher education, affirmative action is discussed in a rather elliptical fashion. We’re about diversity, not quotas. And the commitment to said diversity is a strong one — the class of 2013 is reportedly 44-percent “multicultural.” While ethnic and cultural diversity play a beneficial role in the college environment, it’s important to keep in mind the character that defines affirmative action, correcting the greatest inequities in American society. Penn is one of 26 schools in the country that is doing its part to help students overcome what is becoming the greatest disadvantage of our time, low socioeconomic status, through the QuestBridge program.

Utilizing a rigorous selection process, Questbridge helps students from low-income families attend highly selective schools through four-year, full scholarships. Affirmative action programs across higher education should be trending towards the spirit of Questbridge, providing equal access and a realistic chance to those of the most modest backgrounds without race playing the leading role.

The 2008 achievement gaps show that educational disparities still exist along racial lines. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), white 17-year-olds, on average, scored 26 points higher in math than their black peers and 16 points higher than their Hispanic peers. The reading gaps weighed in at 24 points and 21 points, respectively. The gap, however, is similarly prevalent when looked at from an economic viewpoint. On average, students eligible for free or reduced lunch perform at least 20 points lower on the NAEP in both math and reading in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades.

As it stands today, the inequalities in secondary education must be accounted for in college admission standards nationally to mend that gap over the long run. Race-based affirmative action policies at public universities may be the only means of giving an in-state minority student a reasonable chance at a four-year education. But there is a more immediate and pressing issue at elite, highly selective schools.

Only 9 percent of freshmen in Tier 1 colleges come from the bottom half of the socioeconomic distribution, according to an April 2009 study, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools. Top-tier universities draw from national pools of applicants and have the opportunity, and endowments, to open the doors for a broader group. Although improvement at the bottom levels of education is paramount, provisions in higher education are an intermediate step toward breaking the link between poverty and underachievement. A collegiate setting with a less traditional definition of diversity — where those from different tax brackets, not only different races or religions, are represented — is inherently richer than one that focuses on one or two dimensions of diversity.

Janice Dow, chairwoman of the United Minorities Council and a former Daily Pennsylvanian cartoonist, probably speaks to the importance of a diverse environment best. “Penn’s commitment to diversity is a long stride toward making campus as inclusive as possible and a place where we can really learn from others who may have beliefs and backgrounds completely different from our own,” Dow said.

At a time when education is often touted as the new civil rights struggle, it is important to ensure that the highest levels of education are accessible to those of all economic strata. With its partnership with Penn-Alexander School and other local schools through the Netter Center, the University has done a commendable job at tackling this obstacle at the lowest level of education, where the achievement gap starts. But we can always do more, and as socioeconomic disparities increase, Penn and peer institutions must continue to increase enrollment numbers of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Jonathan Wright is a College senior from Memphis, Tenn. His email address is wright@dailypennsylvanian.com

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