For decades, colleges and universities have pursued geographic diversity in their student bodies, and nobody bats an eye. What's more, it seems to be on sound constitutional footing.
Consider Texas' Top 10 Percent program, which guarantees admission to a public college or university in the state to students who are in the top 10 percent of their graduating high school class. It did not come in for criticism in Fisher vs. University of Texas, the anti-affirmative-action lawsuit that the Supreme Court, in a 7-1 decision Monday, sent back to a lower court for reconsideration.
Social scientists have long distinguished between "bonding ties," which connect people who share similar backgrounds, and "bridging ties," which link people who come from different social spaces.
Since the 1970s, scholars have been aware that bridging ties are especially powerful for generating knowledge transmission; more recently, scholars have argued that teams and communities that emphasize bridging ties and learn how to communicate across their differences outperform more homogenous teams and communities in the development and deployment of useful knowledge.
It's time to double down on geographical diversity in college admissions. We should take it to the level of ZIP codes and, in particular, to the level of the ZIP+4 system. This ZIP code system divides the United States into geographic units as small as a city block or group of apartments.
Some will object that such an approach might lead to the well-off moving strategically into neighborhoods with marginally less good provision of schooling, thereby displacing, as the likely beneficiaries of particular ZIP code slots, those who are currently at more of a disadvantage in the college sweepstakes.
Indeed, researchers have documented such a phenomenon of strategic choice in Texas. But that is not bad news at all. Just as bridging ties are beneficial on college campuses, they are also valuable in schools and neighborhoods. As Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute argued in a recent paper (in a volume I edited), ongoing racial residential segregation is one of the most important causes of low achievement in the public schools that serve disadvantaged children.
Could a college admissions process structured around ZIP+4 diversity motivate the well-to-do to opt for somewhat less exclusive neighborhoods and so on down the income ladder? If so, we would have begun to reverse the incredibly damaging socioeconomic and ethnic residential segregation that is a drag on this nation's ability to once again be first in the world in our level of collective educational attainment. What a relief that would be.
Danielle Allen is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Her most recent book is "Education, Justice, and Democracy."
© 2013 Washington Post
The enrollment gaps
In states that have banned affirmative action in college admissions, prominent public universities have tended to enroll fewer black and Hispanic freshmen, but Florida, which ended affirmative action at the turn of the millennium, has done better than some others. At UCLA, for example, there is a 32 percentage-point gap between the number of Hispanic students enrolled versus the percentage of college-age Hispanic residents in California. At the University of Florida, however, the gap is only 9 percentage points. See full interactive charts for comparison at tinyurl.com/tbtimes-collegecharts.
© 2013 New York Times