College advisers vow to ‘kick the door open’ for Black and Hispanic students despite affirmative action ruling 

WILMINGTON, Del. — Striding into a packed community center filled with high school seniors, Atnre Alleyne has a few words of advice for the crowd, members of the first class of college applicants to be shaped by June’s Supreme Court ruling striking down race-conscious admissions.

“You have to get good grades, you have to find a way to do the academics, but also become leaders,” said Alleyne, the energetic co-founder and CEO of TeenSHARP, a nonprofit that prepares students from underrepresented backgrounds for higher education. “In your schools, do something! Fight for social justice.”

Many of the TeenSHARP participants gathered here, who are predominantly Black or Hispanic, worry that their chances of getting into top-tier schools have diminished with the court’s decision. They wonder what to say in their admissions essays and how comfortable they’ll feel on campuses that could become increasingly less diverse.

Tariah Hyland joins fellow TeenSHARP alums Alphina Kamara and William Garcia to meet with and advise TeenSHARP co-founder Atnre Alleyne in Wilmington Delaware. Credit: Liz Willen/The Hechinger Report

On this autumn night, Alleyne and his team are fielding questions from the dozens of students they advise, on everything from early decision deadlines to which schools are most likely to give generous financial aid and scholarships. The changed admissions landscape has only increased the team’s determination to develop a new generation of leaders, students who will fight to have their voices represented on campuses and later on in the workplace.

“I want them to kick the door open to these places, so they will go back and open more doors,” Alleyne said.

That goal is shared by successful alumni of the program Alleyne and his wife, Tatiana Poladko, started in a church basement 14 years ago. Several are on hand tonight recounting their own educational journeys, culminating in full scholarships to schools such as the University of Chicago and Wesleyan University, where annual estimated costs approach $90,000.

Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, highly selective colleges served as a beacon of hope and economic mobility for students like those TeenSHARP advise. Many are first in their families to attend college and lack legacy connections or access to the private counselors who’ve long given a boost to wealthier students.

Related: Colleges decry Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, but most have terrible records on diversity

But even before the high court ruling, Black and Latino students were poorly represented at these institutions, while the college degree gap between Black and white Americans was getting worse. For some students, the court decision sends a message that they do not belong, and if they get in, they worry they’ll stand out even more.

“I felt really upset about it,” Jamel Powell, a high school junior from Belle Mead, New Jersey, who participates in TeenSHARP, said about the affirmative action ruling. “This system has helped many underrepresented minorities get into these Ivy League schools and excel.”

While the full impact of the ruling on student demographics remains unknown, representatives of 33 colleges wrote in an amicus brief filed in the case that the share of Black students on their campuses would drop from roughly 7.1 percent to 2.1 percent if affirmative action were banned.

The uncertainty of what the decision means is taking a toll on students and school counselors nationally, said Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. As colleges sort through how they can meet commitments to diversity while complying with the law, students wonder if mentioning race in their essays will help or hurt them.

TeenSHARP alums Taria Hyland and Alphina Kamara reconnect in Wilmington, Delaware, to share advice on navigating college admissions and financial aid. Credit: Liz Willen/The Hechinger Report

In his majority decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that race could be invoked only within the context of the applicant’s life story, making essays the one opportunity for students to discuss their race and ethnicity. But since then, Edward Blum, the conservative activist who helped bring the case before the court, has threatened more lawsuits, promising to challenge any essay topic that is “nothing more than a back-channel subterfuge for divulging a student’s race.”

The Department of Education has published guidelines saying that while schools cannot put a thumb on the scale for students based on their race, they “remain free” to consider characteristics tied to individual students’ life experiences, including race. The National Association of College Admission Counseling issued similar guidance, while the Common App introduced new essay prompts that include one about students’ “identity” and “background.”

Because of the uncertainty,school counselors need specific training on crafting essays and how or whether to talk about race, Savitz-Romer said during a Harvard webinar last month on college admissions after affirmative action. “We need counselors and teachers to make students understand that college is still for them,” she said.

It’s a tall order: On average, public school counselors serve more than 400 students each, which offers little time for one-on-one advising.

Related: Why aren’t more school counselors trained in helping students apply to college?

That reality is why nonprofit advising groups like TeenSHARP toil alongside students, guiding them through an increasingly confounding admissions system. TeenSHARP’s team of three advisers works intensively with roughly 140 students at a time, including 50 seniors who often apply to as many as 20 colleges to maximize their chances.

That’s a fraction of those who need help, another reason why the group’s leaders rely on their network of more than 500 “Sharpies,” as alums are known.

Emily Rodriguez, a TeenSHARP senior who attends Conrad Schools of Science in Wilmington, decided to address race head on in her college essays: She wrote about her determination that she would not “play the role of the poor submissive Mexican woman.”

“Admissions officers assure us that their commitment to diversity hasn’t changed. But we will have to see. We’ve explained to families and students that this year is a learning year.”

Tatiana Poladko, co-founder, TeenSHARP

Hamza Parker, a senior at Delaware’s Smyrna High School who moved to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia as a sixth grader, said he was against writing about his identity at first. “I feel like it puts you in a position where you have to have a sob story for your essay instead of talking about something good, like, that happened in your life,” he told Alleyne and Poladko during a counseling session over Zoom.

But in the session Alleyne and Poladko encouraged him to draw from his own story, one they know something about from working with his older sister Hasana, now a junior at Pomona College. The family had a difficult move from Saudi Arabia to New York City and later Delaware, where Hamza joined the Delaware Black Student Coalition.

Hamza decided to revise his essay from one focused on linguistics to describe experiencing racism and then embracing his Muslim heritage.

“I am my normal social self and my Muslim faith and garb are widely known and respected at my school,” he wrote. “My school even now has a dedicated space for prayer during Ramadan.”

Related: The newest benefit at top companies: Private college admissions counseling

Alleyne and Poladko typically work with students who are beginning their first year of high school, so the pair can guide the entire college application process, much as some pricey private counselors do — although TeenSHARP’s services are free; as a nonprofit it relies on an array of donors for support.

Neither Poladko nor Alleyn attended elite schools. They met as graduate students at Rutgers University and became committed to starting TeenSHARP after helping Alleyne’s niece apply to colleges from a large New York City public high school.

Astonished by how complicated and inaccessible college admissions could be, the two decided to make it their life’s work, writing grants and getting donations from local banks and foundations so they could serve more students.

“I felt really upset about it. This system has helped many underrepresented minorities get into these Ivy League schools and excel.”

Jamel Powell, a high school junior from Belle Mead, New Jersey, who participates in TeenSHARP, about the affirmative action ruling.

Their work is now largely remote: During the pandemic, the couple relocated from Wilmington to Poladko’s native Ukraine to be closer to her family, leading to a dramatic escape to Poland with their three young children when war broke out. Poladko is taking a sabbatical from TeenSHARP this year, although she still helps some students via Zoom. Alleyne flies from Warsaw to Wilmington to meet with students in person, often at the community center downtown that once housed their offices.

They also rely on relationships they’ve built over the years with college presidents and admissions officers at schools like Boston College, Pomona College and Wesleyan, along with both Carleton and Macalester Colleges in Minnesota, many of whom have welcomed TeenSHARP applicants.

“We need more ‘Sharpies’ on our campus,” said Suzanne Rivera, president of Macalester College, in Minnesota, and a member of TeenSHARP’s advisory board. “Their questions are always so smart and so insightful.”

Sharpies also tend to become campus leaders, in part because TeenSHARP requires that its students develop leadership skills. That’s something William Garcia, who graduated from the University of Chicago last spring, told seniors in Wilmington.

“If Black high school seniors no longer feel like they are welcomed on predominantly white campuses, they are less likely to apply and even less likely to enroll even if they are offered admission.”

Chelsea Holley, director of admissions at Spelman College in Atlanta

At first, he felt isolated in Chicago, reticent to talk about his experiences as a Hispanic man. “I was in your shoes five years ago,” Garcia said. He later realized his background could be an asset, and drew on it to turn an ingredient for one of Mexico’s most popular liquors into a business venture for his own agave beverage company.

“Embrace your story; tell your story,” Garcia said. “I would tell my story and people would be really interested and would start to help me.”

Alphina Kamara, a 2022 graduate of Wesleyan University, urged seniors to aim high and look beyond state schools and local community colleges that have lower graduation rates and fewer resources — campuses she might have ended up at it not for TeenSHARP.

“I would have never have known that schools like Wesleyan existed, and that I, as a first-generation Black woman, had a place in them,” said Kamara, the child of immigrant parents from Sierra Leone.

Related: Beyond the Rankings: College Welcome Guide

Still, there will always be some TeenSHARP students who don’t want to be on campuses that had terrible track records for diversity, even before the court’s decision.

Tariah Hyland, who in high school co-founded the Delaware Black Student Coalition, knew she’d be more comfortable at one of the country’s more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. She told the Delaware audience that she’s thriving in her junior year at Howard University, where she is studying political science.

Powell, the New Jersey junior, is eyeing both Howard and Atlanta’s Morehouse College and said he’ll likely only apply to HBCUs.

“When I was in public school, I was the only Black boy in my classes,” said Powell, who now attends Acelus Academy, an online school. “I was always the minority, and so by going to an HBCU, I would likely see more people who look like me.” 

That’s no surprise to Chelsea Holley, director of admissions at Spelman College in Atlanta, who said she’s expecting “more interest from Black and Brown students, now that the Supreme Court has made what I believe to be a regressive political decision.”

HBCUs like Spelman — whose graduates include Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman and author Alice Walker — are already seeing more applications and are becoming even more competitive.

“If Black high school seniors no longer feel like they are welcomed on predominantly white campuses, they are less likely to apply and even less likely to enroll, even if they are offered admission,” Holley said, adding that students may be worried about further assaults on diversity and inclusion on college campuses and believe they will be more comfortable at an HBCU.

Still, not everyone predicts the court ruling will precipitate a permanent drop in Black and Hispanic students at predominantly white, selective colleges. Richard Kahlenberg, an author and scholar at Georgetown University predicts the drop will be temporary, and that the affirmative action ban will eventually lead to a fairer landscape for low-income students of all races.

Kahlenberg, who served as an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions, said he wants to see an end to legacy preferences as well as athletic recruiting, so that colleges can give “a meaningful boost” to “disadvantaged students of all races” and “you can get racial diversity without racial preferences.” Challenges to legacy admissions are mounting: The Education Department has opened an investigation into Harvard’s use of the practice, and a recent bipartisan bill calls for colleges to end it.

As mid-December approaches, Alleyne and Poladko are anxiously waiting to see how the handful of TeenSHARP students who applied for early decision will fare.

“Admissions officers assure us that their commitment to diversity hasn’t changed,” Poladko said. “But we will have to see. We’ve explained to families and students that this year is a learning year.”

Until that time, both Poladko and Alleyne will continue pushing students to help those who come after them.

“Our goal is to figure out the game of admissions and give our students an advantage,” Alleyne said. “And our job is to teach them how to play the game.”

This story about TeenSHARP is the first in a series of articles, produced by The Hechinger Report in partnership with Soledad O’Brien Productions, about the impact of the Supreme Court ruling on race-based affirmative action. Stay tuned for an upcoming documentary and part II. Hechinger is a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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