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 since the Top 10 Percent program was introduced. A 2011 paper written for the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed Texas school transitions between eighth and 10th grade and found, “Among the subset of students with both motive and opportunity for strategic high school choice, as many as 25 percent enroll in a different high school to improve the chances of being in the top ten percent. Strategic students tend to choose the neighborhood high school in lieu of more competitive magnet schools.”
But that, I would counter, 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. Other scholars, including Annette Lareau at the University of Pennsylvania, have made similar points about socioeconomic residential segregation. Getting students with more family and social resources back into neighborhood schools should help those schools.
Could a college admissions process structured around Zip+4 diversity incentivize 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, co-edited with Rob Reich, is “Education, Justice, and Democracy.”