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.
International Black Students Are Wealthier
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.
No Longer Compensation for Past
"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."
In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of affirmative action in a case brought against the Michigan Law School. But in another suit against the undergraduate school, the courts ruled against a system that gave preferential points, but allowed the college could take race into account in admission.
"It's still the law," said Wilcher, who worked in the Clinton administration enforcing affirmative action compliance. "The Supreme Court made it clear that you need to take race into account. Affirmative action is still alive and well."
Wilcher argued that decisions based on race are still important. "There are not that many Bill Cosby kids who go to private schools and have alumni at the colleges," she said.
Wilcher graduated from one of the all-female Seven Sisters colleges in 1973 and said she was not surprised about the study's findings. She recently returned to her alma mater for a black alumni conference and discovered there were fewer African-Americans than foreign nationals -- a marked difference from her day.
"We had a discussion because there were so many more native-born Caribbeans and Africans, and it created a lot of tension among students," said Wilcher. "We asked the administration, and they said they counted these groups as part of the black population.
"I am not xenophobic, but you can't take the easy way out," said Wilcher. "You may have to look harder to find qualified African-American students, but affirmative action was never meant to be easy, otherwise you wouldn't need it.
"Foreign-born blacks may be 'easy to get along with,' but it does not take the onus off the college to seek out African-Americans who suit their admission profiles," Wilcher said, noting that American demographics are changing and soon blacks, Hispanics and Asians will be in the majority.
"If these students aren't educated, who will be our future leaders?" she asked. "I think about our national interest and economic competitiveness. We cannot afford not to have affirmative action."
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education cited Harvard, Duke, Vanderbilt, Stanford and Columbia universities for having the highest percentage of black students in their fall 2006 classes. The percentage of black freshmen at elite colleges and universities ranged from a high of 12.3 percent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to 1.4 percent at the California Institute of Technology.
At Princeton University, 9 percent of this year's freshman class listed themselves as black Americans. Sophomore Danny Scotton Jr., a native-born African American and "descendant of slaves," said that he is a minority on campus where many black students are first and second generation African or Caribbean immigrants. He said he thinks international students gain admission because they perform better in school.
"In my opinion, African immigrants are the most highly educated group in all of America," Scotton said. "If their parents are willing to leave their country, they are going to instill a good work ethic and an emphasis on education in their children. Also, studies have shown that many immigrants have at least one parent with a degree. Compare that to America, where black men are more likely to go to jail than to college."
At Tennessee's Vanderbilt University, the percentage of African American students has jumped to 10.9 percent, up from just 6.1 percent percent in 2000, because of aggressive recruitment efforts, according to associate provost and dean of admission Doug Christiansen. The school's total foreign enrollment is only about 2 percent.
Vanderbilt -- which enrolls 6,400 undergraduates and 11,000 graduate students -- brags on its Web site that it is "unapologetically committed to diversity." In what it calls a "holistic" approach to admission, it considers a student's grades, rank, advanced placement course load, extracurriculars, essays, letters of recommendation and attributes like race and socio-economic background.
Its freshman retention rate is one of the highest in the nation, at just under 96 percent, and 89 percent of its students stay on to graduate. The school's financial aid has also jumped from 50 percent to 60 percent to help pay the way for those who cannot afford.
"We target inner-city school systems in the U.S. and try to help underserved students if they are academically qualified," Christiansen said. "It doesn't matter where you are born and what family you are born into if you challenge yourself, you're curious and you've prepared yourself."
Vanderbilt gets 13,000 applications for 1,600 places in its freshman class and markets to students even in the eighth grade in an effort to capture the brightest black students and get them on a path to college.
"We are not just recruiting. We are helping these students get a degree," Christiansen said. "This is where their lives start to change and alter."
Christiansen, who teaches political science, sees diversity at work in the classroom. "When there are lots of opinions, the dynamic is better than if everyone thinks exactly the same way."
But, he warned, even admissions officers come to the table with biases, and his university consciously discusses them before reviewing student applications.
"If the facts in this study bear out across the country, and we are trying to emulate people who are like ourselves, that is a sound indictment and a sad thing, and we have more work to do," Christiansen said.
But Swain is still troubled that universities do discriminate against black students from lower social classes. As a poor black woman from Virginia, she struggled to make her mark in academia and argues that diversity policies still serve white students better than blacks.
Swain was tenured as a congressional scholar at Princeton University from 1990 to 2000, and said she always felt like an "outsider."
"I encounter social class bias all the time," she said. "I have five degrees, but I didn't change my accent. I could have disguised where I come from, but I felt I should tell the story because it shows that people from my background can rise above circumstances.
"People like me never reach this level," Swain added. "I am not even supposed to be in the room. But God gave me the opportunity to walk the corridors of power so I could really look behind the door."