Rethinking Diversity and Proxies for Economic Disadvantage in Higher Education: A First Generation Students' Project

70 Pages Posted: 26 Sep 2014 Last revised: 18 Oct 2014

Date Written: Fall 2014


On the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this Article argues for a renewed focus on disadvantage and social mobility in passage of the Civil Rights Act and originally advocated affirmative action, the goals of rooting out discrimination and ensuring social mobility for all Americans motivated him. Over time, these goals receded in law and policy. Courts justified affirmative action on grounds of diversity. More recently, commentators urged consideration of "class-based" affirmative action or advocated policies that favor "low-income" students. Both initiatives can help open up access to selective institutions of higher education. However, neither is a dependable proxy for disadvantage in education. Race-based affirmative action justified on grounds of diversity is a vital tool for ameliorating racial inequality, but it does not necessarily address class-based disadvantage. Class- or income-based policies do not necessarily benefit the neediest students.

The demographic makeup of selective institutions of higher education today suggests that neither effort is particularly effective in ensuring social mobility. Campuses are more racially heterogeneous, but largely economically homogeneous. If the social mobility objectives of the Civil Rights Act are to be more fully realized, universities must supplement current admissions and aid policies.

Today's costly, ultra-competitive, and strategically managed admissions environment makes it even more vital to create pathways for talented students from truly disadvantaged backgrounds to selective institutions. To avoid the crowding out of the neediest students, disadvantage must be identified more precisely and attacked at its roots instead of indirectly. Favorable treatment of first-generation, Pell Grant-eligible students in three areas - admissions, financial aid, and institutional outreach - can facilitate greater access for truly educationally disadvantaged students. Through initiatives focused on these students, colleges can simultaneously tackle social problems related to income, socio-culture, place, and race, advance equal educational opportunity and pursue the national interest in social mobility.

Suggested Citation

Brown-Nagin, Tomiko, Rethinking Diversity and Proxies for Economic Disadvantage in Higher Education: A First Generation Students' Project (Fall 2014). University of Chicago Legal Forum, Fall 2014 Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Tomiko Brown-Nagin (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 310
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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