Affirmative Action in College Admissions: Race vs Class

Affirmative Action in College Admissions: Race vs Class


Fred L. Pincus


In the current debate over affirmative action at the University of Texas, one issue that always comes up is the “class vs race” debate.  While affirmative action programs on college admissions focus on race, critics often argue that the real problem is class; i.e., low income families are underrepresented in higher education.

As so often happens in affirmative action debates, critics present this as an “either/or” discussion when it should be structured in “both/and” terminology.  Non-Asian students of color still need help, but so do low income students from all backgrounds.

Some simple statistics can illustrate this point.


Table 1: Percent Distribution of Bachelor’s Degrees Compared with Racial Distribution of Population, 2010
Racial Group Bachelor’s Degrees Total Population Over/Under Representation
Non-Hispanic Whites             72.9%             63.8%             +9.1%



Black             10.3             12.2             -1.9
Hispanic               8.8


American Indian               0.8



Other/ 2+ races                na






Chronicle of Higher Eduation, August 31, 2010.  U.S.Census Bureau.

These data make it clear that in spite of several decades of affirmative action and other programs designed to help the underprivileged, whites are still overrepresented in the percentage of bachelor’s degrees that they receive (72.9%) when compared to their distribution in the general population (63.8%).   Blacks and especially Hispanics are still underrepresented.

Asians are also overrepresented among BA recipients but this figure masks important differences among Asians.  While students from Chinese, Japanese and Indian backgrounds are doing quite well, those from Vietnamese, Cambodian and Hmong backgrounds are not.  The data also suggest that American Indian students are adequately represented but the numbers are too small to be confident in this conclusion.  There is still a lot of work to be done to achieve racial equity.


It is much more difficult to get good data on family income and education than on race.  Fortunately, a neat little newsletter, Postsecondary Education Opportunity, has been publishing these data for years.  Using federal income data, Tom Mortenson separates families into 4 income quartiles, or fourths.  He then estimates the chances that a student from each quartile will get a bachelor’s degree.

Table 2: Estimated Baccalaureate Degree Attainment by Age 24 by Family Income Quartile, 1970 and 2009
Family Income Quartile 1970


















Highest:lowest ratio



Postsecondary Education Opportunity, November 2010.


In 2009, children from the highest income quartile had an 82.4% chance of getting a BA, while those from the lowest quartile only had an 8.3% chance of getting a BA.  This means that high income children were almost 10 times more likely to get a BA than children from low income families.

Comparing the 2009 data to the 1970 data, we see several things.  First, students from all quartiles were more likely to get a BA in 2009 than in 1970.  Second, students from low income families were less likely than those from high income families to get a bachelor’s degree in 1970, just as they were in 2009.

Finally, and most astonishingly, the gap between high and low income families grew significantly in 2009 as compared with 1970.  In 1970, students from high income families were 6.5 times more likely than low income families to get a BA.  In 2009, that same figure jumped to 9.9.

What does this tell us.  First, it is still necessary to pursue race-based affirmative action to deal with the under-representation of blacks and Hispanics among BA recipients.  Second, it is necessary to pursue policies to increase the number BA recipients from low- and moderate-income families.  Both race and class inequality in higher education are still critically important.  Most of those who make the “class rather than race” argument are more interested in stopping race-based affirmative action than in helping low and moderate income students.

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