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Claudia Cohen Hall houses Penn Admissions and offers tours of the Penn campus. Credit: Roger Ge

“What do you look for in an applicant?” a prospective student, like countless before them, asks an admissions officer at a college information session.

“Good grades and test scores, for one,” the admissions officer responds. “We also want to get to know  you through essays and recommendation letters and learn about extracurriculars. And we want to see that you have taken advantage of resources available to you in high school.”

We’ve all heard — and maybe asked — this question. And we’ve all gotten some version of the answer above. I know I did when applying to Penn.

But one part stands out: taking advantage of resources available to us in high school. This ability can vary widely between zip codes, a significant determinant of future success. This is due to inequality in public school funding, part of a pattern of public services being denied to majority-minority areas through discriminatory redlining practices that separate poorer neighborhoods from affluent ones. With 80% of local revenue for public education funding coming from property taxes in 2019, it’s no wonder that resources can vary based on residential income levels. 

Meanwhile, highly selective schools disproportionately admit applicants from the highest income brackets. At Penn, 19 percent of students come from families making more than $630,000 in 2017, placing them in the top 1 percent of income. Additionally, 45 percent of students came from families making more than $376,000 in 2017, putting them in the top 5 percent.

Although 95 percent of the U.S. population identifies between low-income and upper-middle class — the latter of which Dr. Stephen Rose of George Washington University defines as ending at $374,000 in household income in 2019 — they represent barely over half of Penn’s student body.

Moreover, only 3.3 percent of Penn students come from households making $20,000 or less, while 18.1 percent of Americans make $25,000 or less. With nine out of ten college students nationwide qualifying for Pell Grants being from households making $51,800 or less — a level representing 38 percent of American families — the estimated 18 percent of Penn’s class of 2025 that received one is dismally low.

To be more representative of America’s socioeconomic diversity, Penn, the rest of the Ivy League, and other selective schools should admit more low- and middle-income students, abandoning preferences that cause a dramatic overrepresentation of the highest echelons of income. That isn’t to say that schools shouldn’t admit qualified high-income students, but there is a drastic bias to be corrected.

In reality, the preference to enroll wealthy students is not hindered by race-based affirmative action (RBAA). It doesn’t change the fact that the cards are stacked against low- and middle-income applicants. So while RBAA has the right intentions, it is poorly executed. In college admissions, it’s a form of institutionalized performative activism protected by the federal government and exercised by many selective schools across the U.S. — a band-aid solution, if you will.

But why? Because administrations can pretend they are uplifting communities that are historically underrepresented in student bodies. There is a low rate of low- and middle-income applicants who actually benefit from this. For example, 71 percent of African American and Latino American students at Harvard University already come from very wealthy backgrounds. It’s also ineffective because it delays those with the power to enact societal reforms that would contribute to long-term upward mobility from doing so.

If our legislators were to enact progressive policies like universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage, affordable housing, and universal broadband, among others, every child in America would have access to the same fundamental rights and resources, and we would be steps closer to achieving equality of opportunity. At that point, students would be admitted on the basis of merit and the ability to take advantage of the resources available to them.

However, this idea of equality of opportunity will not always lead to equality of outcome, due to inevitable differences in the decision-making of individuals afforded a similar initial range of opportunities. Not everyone will be part of the same income levels, and so a socioeconomic approach to affirmative action that keeps in mind income-based limitations that may exist for applicants is needed regardless of whether these progressive policies exist. I would argue that this method is one of many crucial steps toward fostering equality of opportunity.

Therefore, applicants from all income levels can be considered on an equal footing while maintaining diversity and understanding how well they took advantage of the opportunities available to them. It would end admissions offices’ treatment of Asian-American applicants as a monolith with similar experiences and backgrounds in the current RBAA system. It can uplift low- and middle-income Asian-American students, and this is critical given the effect stereotypes about Asian-Americans have had on people’s poor awareness of income inequality in the community.

When I looked at data about the impact of RBAA on Asian-Americans and the documented, monolithic ways in which Asian-Americans have been evaluated by college admissions offices, it was hard not to wonder — is our ethnic diversity valued? Our linguistic diversity? Our religious diversity? Our socioeconomic diversity? Or do admissions officers only see us through the broad lens of race? Acknowledging the wealth gap among Asian-Americans through a socioeconomic approach to affirmative action can help schools accept a more diverse array of identities within the Asian-American community, so low- and middle-income Asian-American groups, including but not limited to Burmese, (with a median household income of $44,400), Afghan ($47,000), and Nepalese ($55,000) Americans, have a fairer shot at admission.

And it’s not just race — other preferences need to disappear, like ones for legacy applicants, children of faculty, and relatives of donors. These preferences don’t contribute to the notion of equality of opportunity, and are a form of affirmative action for the wealthy and well-connected.

RBAA also stigmatizes those perceived by others to have potentially benefited from it, leading many to lose faith that these policies will help them transcend situations like labor market discrimination. This is connected to the unfortunate enforcement of the model minority trope, a tool that divides racial groups in the U.S. By lumping Asian-Americans into one homogeneous group through RBAA, racial divisions are inherently reinforced.

Therefore, while keeping socioeconomic limitations in mind, students can be evaluated on the basis of merit. A low- or middle-income student from a public high school who graduated at the top of their class while taking advantage of every opportunity available to them is likely going to be more impressive than a wealthy one at a private feeder school who didn’t, so regardless of race, socioeconomic status should have an effect on admission.

Some might argue in favor of RBAA, because even if socioeconomic status is considered equally between different groups, African-Americans and Latino Americans still face discrimination when applying for jobs or being considered for promotions. Now this is certainly true, and labor market discrimination is unfortunately rampant and must be addressed. However, the difference lies in that socioeconomic status does not necessarily come into play in the job market because personal wealth and income matters to colleges, but not to employers. I could have $1,000 or $10 million, and it wouldn't make a difference for a job promotion, but my racial background could. Whether I have or earn $1,000 or $10 million will matter a lot to places like Penn, whose need-blind claims are extremely questionable. And such a bias toward wealth can mean that the doors are nearly shut for many low- and middle-income applicants.

In October, the Supreme Court will hear SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, cases debating RBAA’s constitutionality in private and public institutions of higher education. Penn uses race as a factor when evaluating applicants and filed an amicus brief in support of both defendants. I rarely agree with the 6-3 conservative majority on anything these days, but I do hope that RBAA will be ruled unconstitutional so that schools like Penn can take the ethical approach of admitting racially and ethnically diverse classes on the basis of merit while considering socioeconomic status.

And if schools do switch to a socioeconomic approach, we must remember that promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion is still important, so we must work toward it through mass societal reform, not temporary fixes that ignore underlying inequalities in our existing institutions.

KESHAV RAMESH is a Wharton and College sophomore studying finance, statistics, and international studies in the Huntsman Program from South Windsor, CT. His email address is