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Wealth-Based Affirmative Action

Naveen Sunkavally

Affirmative action is a touchy issue. It bears many little tentacles that probe and prod at our values and emotions. It casts lingering doubts, raises suspicions, and engenders fierce diatribe. Nearly 30 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the issue provides a perfect test of America's racial climate and progress.

Recently, the University of California announced statistics about students who applied for admission this fall at UC Berkeley and University of California at Los Angeles, two of the best public educational institutions in the nation. At Berkeley, the number of black applicants dropped 50 percent from the year before, while the number of Hispanic applicants dropped 40 percent. At UCLA, there was a 43 percent decline in black applicants and a 33 percent decline in Hispanic applicants. The change in applicant numbers was brought about by a statewide vote the year before to ban affirmative action from employment and college considerations. As a direct result, numbers of minority students attending these universities has also declined.

Is such a distribution fair? Is this a value that California - and the American government, as a consequence of accepting California's decision - seek to uphold?What price diversity?

To assess affirmative action, one must first form a concrete definition of "intelligence," or what constitutes a "qualification." A common argument against affirmative action argues that it would be unfair to replace the more non-minority "qualified" candidate with a less "qualified" minority candidate. But what exactly is a more "qualified" candidate?

In university admissions, especially at UC Berkeley, a more qualified candidate has higher Scholastic Achievement Test scores, challenges himself or herself by taking more advanced classes and usually attends a better high school. But those who attend better schools are necessarily predominantly white, since those who attend better schools have more income or live in more wealthy neighborhoods that support better schools. These better schools usually offer more opportunities for student advancement, and those students who attend better schools have better chance for advancement.

The SAT, though more of a test of one's test-taking skills, is still the most valid test of education America has today. No other alternatives have come up to replace it. But the SAT tests only knowledge gained from extensive reading and math preparation, not innate intelligence or potential. Thus an average student who attends a better school - a student who is also more likely to be white -will more likely perform better on the SATthan a student who attends the poorer school. Moreover, less "qualified" applicants usually tend to spend more time working on the job, recouping financial aid and loans, than on studies.

Is it fair for more qualified students - who through no merit of their own - attend better schools to be favored over less "qualified" applicants who through no fault of their own attend poorer schools? Clearly, intelligence or what is "qualified" must be defined in terms of academic potential, a thing that does not come through in SAT scores, grade point averages, or the taking of advanced classes.

This is where affirmative action comes in. It provides a way to compensate those minority applicants who usually attend poorer schools and have fewer opportunities. It is a noble endeavor in this aspect.

However, affirmative action would be a more noble endeavor if it compensated applicants not based on their race but on their poverty level. Clearly, a wealthy black student who attends an elite school should not be given preference to a poor white student who attends a less elite school. Ideal affirmative action would work to improve not the racial status of those accepted but the wealth distribution of those accepted. The results of ideal affirmative action will invariably be the same as affirmative action now, since poorer students are also more likely of the minority than not, but the system of admissions - from acceptance based on race to acceptance based on wealth - would change dramatically.

I agree with opponents of affirmative action that universities should admit the most "qualified" students. But the more "qualified" student is one who demonstrates more academic potential, not performance on SAT tests, advanced classes, etc. "Qualified" applicants, according to the reformed definition, are dispersed within the population in all income levels, and a university should endeavor to find the most "qualified" applicants from all these levels. And ideal affirmative action, though its goal is not improving diversity, would have the added benefit of improving diversity since those from poorer classes are necessarily more likely to be of the minority.