07/12/2012 09:22 am ET | Updated Sep 11, 2012

What is Diversity?

As high school seniors like me reluctantly begin the nerve-racking college application process, most of us have quickly picked up on the important role race plays in the admissions game. It seems statistics about the percentage of colored students in a school has become a requirement on any college pamphlet, and just about every handout in our mailbox has to have a minority on the front cover.

This fixation on race probably comes from the value of having the "diversity" label, and its importance in terms of reputation for many colleges to attract potential students. To achieve this diversity, a race-oriented affirmative action policy has been widely adopted by colleges to give certain groups preferences in admissions, having been targeted as "disadvantaged." This controversial policy has become so notorious that when we think of diversity and affirmative action, our minds automatically jump to race. But why do our notions of these concepts have to be purely about ethnicity, especially in the context of higher education? Instead, diversity and affirmative action can be achieved through a different, and just as important criteria -- income and affluence.

It's tough to think about diversity in terms of something that isn't race -- justifiably so, since our society has had to overcome so many barriers to racial coexistence. But for today's colleges and students as well, it makes more sense to evaluate diversity in economic rationale. Think about it -- your ethnicity, in and of itself, does not make you "disadvantaged" in terms of learning capabilities and opportunities. Instead, that's what money does. Race certainly has a factor in determining what that income is, but it's far from the only influence, which is why economics is a better criterion for determining what "disadvantaged" means in terms of affirmative action. There are many Hispanic and African American families who are enormously affluent in America, just as there are plenty of poor white and Asian American households in this nation -- which is why race itself is no longer an adequate measure of diversity in colleges.

This is mainly because our society has moved from a less racially divided culture to a more capitalist one, with money, not race, determining what schools you go to, textbooks you study from, and teachers you learn with. If affirmative action is to continue its original goal of giving everyone a shot at the American dream and higher level education, it needs to factor family affluence into account in giving preferences to students during admissions.

But we shouldn't be blind here. Past injustices because of the color of your skin certainly still reverberate today in many communities. Having income as a measure of what being "disadvantaged" means, however, does not ignore this fact. The degree to which past racism and subjugation has affected you most accurately reflects through your affluence due to the economic systems our country runs on. And more importantly, evaluating income takes into account a host of other factors that recognizes the variety of hardships students can go through, whether that's living in a single-parent household, dealing with medical conditions in the family, or facing unique regional and local adversity.

What this comes down to is that, as prospective students to colleges and as part of society at large, we need to break our own conceptions of what being "diverse" and "disadvantaged" means. After all, one of the main reasons colleges use affirmative action in a race-based way is to achieve "diversity" in our (the prospective students', parents', college guide-writers') eyes. By continuing to view such words as interlinked exclusively with race, colleges will continue to base affirmative action policies on race for numbers' sake, and worse, we will re-entrench ideas about which race is better than the other. Organizations such as Questbridge have already made partnerships with numerous prestigious universities to help low-income students garner admission, but the process is far from over. In the end, affirmative action is necessary to compensate for past injustices, but its focus should not be race but income in the context of higher education. For this to happen, it requires all of us to broaden and expand our perspective on what diversity really means.