Class-based affirmative action was the topic of debate last week at a well-attended event sponsored by the Pomona Student Union (PSU), a self-described nonpartisan student organization committed to raising the level of open and honest dialogue on campus.
The event, “The Price of Admission: Class-Based Affirmative Action at Top Colleges,” featured a panel discussion and was held in the Edmunds Ballroom at Pomona’s Smith Campus Center (SCC) Sept. 29. The three-person panel debated the merits and drawbacks of class-based affirmative action in higher education admissions, considering the fact that 75 percent of students at top American colleges come from the wealthiest socioeconomic quarter of the U.S. population and only three percent of students at top colleges come from the least wealthy socioeconomic quarter.
The panelists included George Leef of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, James Sterba, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and Matthew Yglesias, Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and author of Heads in the Sand, a nonpartisan critique of U.S. foreign policy.
According to PSU board member Larkin Corrigan PO ’14, who spearheaded the event and acted as moderator, Leef and Sterba represented the “two ends of the spectrum” in the affirmative action debate, while Yglesias, a progressive, brought “nuance.”
Leef called affirmative action “disruptive” and argued that it should not be instituted in college and university admissions, whether it be based on race, class, legacy status, or athletics. He argued that colleges and universities should “get a good body of students, and then give them the money,” implying that admissions staff should focus solely on enrolling the most academically capable students, disregarding finances and other factors.
“Leef expressed views that didn’t match up with my views or 97 percent of the audience,” Corrigan said. But she added, “That’s how you get dialogue: to have two different sides.”
The opposing side was represented by Notre Dame’s Sterba, who argued that class-based affirmative action should be put in place at the nation’s top colleges to make them less like, as he put it, “country clubs for the rich.”
“We have a very unjust education system here in the United States,” he said.
Yglesias turned the focus of debate to K-12 education, which he said was the root of education inequality in the U.S. According to Yglesias, the socioeconomic gap in American schools has led to an achievement gap.
Yglesias added that race-based affirmative action often favors students who do not represent disadvantaged minority groups.
“I recall when I was in college at Harvard, a very, very, very large share of Hispanics at Harvard were people like me—very light-skinned Cuban-Americans from families with very long residence in the United States,” he said. “Very few of them were from Mexican or Latin American backgrounds, which make up the bulk of the Latino population.”
Pomona College’s new Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Seth Allen, who joined the college July 18, said his office takes many factors into account when making admissions decisions.
“We are committed to viewing every student in their own context,” he said. “I think there are critics that think that colleges ought to be this formula for students with the best GPA, rank in class, SAT score, and full résumé, and I think we would be insistent that this is not our perspective. In fact, it’s the whole person made up of what we sense of their potential.”
“I wouldn’t characterize it as any kind of affirmative action,” Allen added. “We’re looking to a process that is fair.”
Allen said that diversity, including economic diversity, can contribute to the campus community.
“As a student here at Pomona, you’re going to benefit from bumping into people that are different than you and that will challenge you and your perspective—not necessarily to change it, but to help make it more sophisticated so that you can understand others’ points of view,” he said.
PSU president Rose Green PO ’12 said that the PSU initially received some opposition from faculty over the choice of panelists. “In the end, we got a lot more support than opposition,” she said.
Green also said there was concern over whether the topic would stir controversy among attendees.
“I think people were concerned that it would upset students on campus. We never want to do an event that’s about whether students should be on campus [or] whether a particular kind of student should be on campus,” she said.
Corrigan said she was disappointed with the lack of diversity on the panel. She said that PSU reached out to women and people of color to speak at the event, but was unable to find an appropriate panelist. “There wasn’t even that option to have a different kind of speaker,” she said.
Green emphasized that the role of the PSU is to explore issues that are not being discussed on campus. “The PSU needs to take a look at hard issues, and part of the reason why we exist is to address concerns that aren’t exactly easy to discuss,” she said. “Any time you address a controversial issue, it’s a risk.”
Corrigan echoed Green’s comments. “Doing this event was kind of risky, because there was space for people to get offended,” she said.