Carol Swain grew up poor, one of 12 children, and dropped out of the ninth grade to get married. Three children later, at 20, her life was thrown into crisis -- a daughter had died of crib death, she filed for divorce and took a job at a garment factory.
But that same year -- in 1975 -- her life turned around when she decided to earn her high school diploma. Today, Swain holds five academic degrees and is on the faculty of Vanderbilt University.
Swain, who's black, said her achievement is not because of affirmative action, but was rather the result of determination, ability and around-the-clock work-study jobs.
Now, 46 years after the term "affirmative action" was first coined, efforts to help the economically disadvantaged are shifting as American universities cater to an "elite class" of socially successful blacks, according to Swain.
Swain's perceptions are echoed in a study published by the American Journal of Education that shows universities are, in effect, outsourcing affirmative action.
The study says the nation's elite colleges are bolstering their diversity quotas with black immigrants from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, many of whom are wealthier, better educated and easier to get along with than their American-born counterparts.
According to the study, 13 percent of the nation's college-age black population comes from outside the country, and at the top universities, that number approaches 25 percent.
The study -- carried out jointly by Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania -- based its findings on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen. It said immigrant students are often favored, because they are highly motivated and get better grades because they can afford test preparation.
It also looked at a 2004 study by Nancy Foner and George M. Fredrickson who wrote, "To white observers, black immigrants seem more polite, less hostile [and] more solicitous."
Many universities brag about diversity, said Swain, but their admissions policies increasingly reflect race and social class, rather than economic need.
"Many white leaders seem to care only about having people who are similar but of different racial background," said Swain. "They want some diversity, but not a whole lot."
Affirmative action was first coined in 1961 by President Kennedy, who created the Committee for Economic Opportunity. His executive order mandated that projects using federal funds use "affirmative action" to ensure hiring practices were free of racial bias.
As the civil rights movement swelled, affirmative action was further defined by President Johnson in a 1965 speech at Howard University: "You do not take a man hobbled for years by chains, liberate him and bring him to the starting race, saying, 'You are free to compete with all others.'"
Today, after several court challenges, race alone -- rather than social disparity -- has become a more relevant factor in university admissions, according to the American Association of Affirmative Action.
"Affirmative action is no longer a compensation for past discriminations," said Shirley Wilcher, the association's executive director. "Today it is divorced from overcoming disadvantage."