A Class Act? Social Class Affirmative Action and Higher Education

50 San Diego Law Review 441 (2013)

28 Pages Posted: 13 Sep 2006 Last revised: 23 Jun 2020

Date Written: 2013


It is often suggested that affirmative action should be on the basis of social class, instead of or in addition to racial and ethnic preferences, and many universities and colleges have instituted "class" affirmative action in their undergraduate and graduate admissions. Class rather than race seems attractive, because if the goal is to help the underprivileged, it is more straightforward to give preferences to the underprivileged, rather than to groups whose members are not all underprivileged, while many underprivileged people are not members of such groups. Also, racial preferences are often criticized for the stigma they impose on their beneficiaries, and for promoting racial politics, whereas class affirmative action might be less obvious, less stigmatizing, and less divisive.

But there are serious drawbacks to class affirmative action. Some of the drawbacks are common to any preferences that favour the less qualified over the more qualified. But some reasons for wariness are specific to class affirmative action. In higher education in particular, who will receive class preference? For example, what about immigrants and their children, who make up a substantial fraction of the underprivileged? In general, social class is much more difficult than race or ethnicity to define. This very difficulty would confer enormous discretion and power on faculties and administrators who undertake to bestow class preferences: discretion that would invite abuse for political and other ends. At the same time, the moral and social case for class preference is shakier than for racial affirmative action. Although America is not a classless society, nor may such a thing exist anywhere, people from around the world have "voted with their feet" to seek opportunity and a better life in America. In contrast with its history of racial injustice, America may have less to atone for and less to worry about for the future where social mobility is concerned.

If the goal is to increase educational opportunity, the more urgent priorities might include controlling spiraling tuition costs and allocating scholarship budgets on the basis of need. It is far from clear whether preferential treatment is necessary to increase educational access for the less privileged, or whether the call for class preferences reflects a mindset inimical to impartial standards, inimical to academic standards in particular, and prone to group preferences as a first rather than a last resort.

Keywords: Affirmative Action, Higher Education, Civil Rights, Social Class, Law and Society

JEL Classification: J70, J71, J78, I20, I28, K1, K10

Suggested Citation

Schwarzschild, Maimon, A Class Act? Social Class Affirmative Action and Higher Education (2013). 50 San Diego Law Review 441 (2013), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=929536

Maimon Schwarzschild (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
619-260-2343 (Phone)
619-260-4791 (Fax)

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