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Less than a month after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harvard’s admissions dean announced the university’s commitment to enrolling a higher number of Black students than in the past.
Soon, other Ivy League universities, such as Yale, Princeton and Columbia, increased efforts to enroll Black students, too, and the era of affirmative action was born. Institutions were finally beginning to address the historical exclusion of degree-aspiring students based on race or ethnicity.
Obtaining a college degree has tremendous transformative power. It has a far-reaching ripple effect, with power to uplift individuals, families and entire communities; it remains the most reliably consistent path to economic and social mobility.
Now that the Supreme Court has decided that colleges and universities can no longer take race into consideration as a specific basis in the admission process, we are witnessing the destruction of a 55-year effort to grant Black and brown students access to that upward mobility road.
With the gutting of affirmative action, stepping up allyship for Black and brown students as they strive to get into and through college is more urgent than ever.
It starts with dismantling the myths about affirmative action.
The first prevalent myth is that affirmative action required colleges to admit a certain number of students of color. In fact, affirmative action was not based on quotas; for most colleges, using race and ethnicity data was critical to the process of shaping their incoming class to foster a rich landscape of ideas and reflect America’s diversity of background and experience. Disallowing this practice will make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to do so.
Another myth is that the use of race and ethnicity as a consideration in admissions flooded colleges with an increasing number of Black students who took the place of applicants who were more “highly qualified.”
This false perception is contradicted by the data. Despite the widespread practice of using race and ethnicity in admissions, Black student enrollment was down 22 percent in the decade from 2010 to 2020, and recent data shows that it has fallen another 7 percent since that time.
After nearly 25 years in education, I have found that it is far more likely that a “highly qualified” student (even a student of color) will be displaced by a less qualified student benefiting from legacy admissions, financial interests or institutional priorities (academic, athletic or other extracurricular programs) than by an “affirmative action” admission.
The third, and most insidious, misconception impacting public opinion on affirmative action is the myth of meritocracy. Opponents of affirmative action assert that college admissions should be a meritocracy — basically, that those students with the highest GPAs and test scores and the most impressive slates of extracurricular accomplishments should win admission by merit.
Behind this idea is the belief that meritocracy is noble, fair and traditionally the American way. But in a country where opportunities can be purchased and/or inherited, “meritocracy” is at best an unattainable aspiration and at worst a tool to justify disproportionate privilege and power.
Sadly, there has never been a meritocracy in college admissions or in our great country as a whole.
Take the question of SAT/ACT scores: Students who excel do not generally do so based on their sheer effort and talent alone. Black and brown students are more likely to attend underperforming schools that leave students underprepared for college entrance exams. These students also typically have significantly less access to academic guidance, early college programs, pricey tutors, summer-long study programs or college admissions consultants — opportunities commonly purchased for or by their more affluent peers.
Even admissions based on extracurricular activities are innately biased. First-generation and low-income students are often compelled to work to contribute to the family income and/or take care of younger siblings or extended family members in the household, focusing on basic family needs.
This reality makes it harder for these students, disproportionately Black and brown in number, to participate in school-based sports and clubs and community volunteering opportunities. Furthermore, the schools they attend are less likely to offer costly sports camps or exposure to esoteric sports such as rowing, equestrianism and fencing that might give them a leg up in admission.
In a country where opportunities can be purchased and/or inherited, “meritocracy” is at best an unattainable aspiration and at worst a tool to justify disproportionate privilege and power.
Now that colleges are banned from considering race, what other criteria of admission will gain more weight? It won’t be academics, which is already sufficiently considered for admitted students.
Will it be economic interests, such as legacy, donor status and the ability of the student’s family to pay the “full freight” cost of college? Will it be college essays for which wealthy students often get help constructing compelling narratives from high-priced admissions consultants?
Whatever the criteria, it’s likely that they will only further reduce the number of historically excluded students admitted.
Then there is the question of college advising. Many Black and brown students are also the first in their families to go to college, and their parents have limited experience in the highly complicated processes of test prep, applications and financial aid. Yet, on average, in public schools, the student-counselor ratio is only one counselor per 400 students — and it’s even lower in some high-need districts (disproportionately attended by Black and Latino students).
In such districts, counselors are also more likely to be focused on addressing the social and emotional needs of students (like confronting the student mental health crisis and other priorities), leaving little time for in-depth college counseling.
With public school counselors so overloaded, students must either be lucky enough to find a nonprofit focused on helping drive college access and success or go it alone.
A truly merit-based process could be rationally defended in a nation where opportunities and resources are as randomly distributed as talent and drive. But that is not, and has never been, the American experience.
Ours is a nation where money, power and legacy buy opportunities and privilege. The fundamental way to change that status quo is to increase access to a quality education — exactly what has been undermined by the Supreme Court ruling.
Outlawing affirmative action in college admissions is wrong from a moral and values perspective, and it is economically disastrous. It will undoubtedly raise the barriers to degree attainment for students who are already facing the most challenging of life’s hurdles.
Students are our future leaders, and it’s up to us to ensure that every student has the means to step boldly and confidently into that reality.
Instead of going backward to a time of greater inequity, we need to continue moving forward to reduce — and ultimately eliminate — the college graduation gap.
I challenge all colleges and universities to take significant steps — like ending legacy admissions practices and focusing more scholarship and aid dollars on Black and brown students — to begin to address the negative impacts of this Supreme Court decision.
Steven Colón is chief executive officer at Bottom Line, a nonprofit organization that partners with degree-aspiring students from historically excluded communities to help them get into and through college and successfully launch careers.
This story about the Supreme Court affirmative action decision was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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