A Call to Action in the Aftermath of SCOTUS Decision: Dismantling Barriers in College Admissions
As a Black woman who has only attended Historically White Institutions (HWIs) and who works within higher education, I’ve been meditating on my own emotions and reactions to the recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) regarding race-based college admissions. The court struck down race-based admission programs at Harvard (6-2 decision) and the University of North Carolina (6-3 decision), ruling that affirmative action admission policies that consider a student’s race - policies which have raised the number of Black, Latinx, and other minority student groups on college campuses - violate the U.S. Constitution.
This decision has left me both disheartened and disappointed, but mostly concerned. SCOTUS sided with the Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit membership group that opposes use of race in college admissions processes. SCOTUS’s decision has undermined the small progress that has been made, and both the court and Students for Fair Admissions neglect the realities of systemic racism that persist in our educational institutions. By deeming race-based admissions unconstitutional, SCOTUS overlooks the fact that diversity is more than a checkbox on an application form; it encompasses diverse perspectives, experiences, and voices that enrich the learning environment for all students.
While it is true that affirmative action has been implemented for decades to address disparities in college admissions, the proportion of underrepresented students at selective institutions still remains relatively low. This is particularly true of Black and Latinx students at highly selective colleges and universities across the country.
A forthcoming report by The Education Trust, a nonprofit organization focused on educational equity, found that at some of the most selective institutions in the United States, Black enrollment has remained relatively stagnant over the years. According to the report, the enrollment of Black students at selective private colleges and universities saw only modest increases, noting, “not a single Ivy League institution enrolled a representative share of Black students in 2020, despite having the ability to leverage race-conscious admissions.” This indicates that, despite affirmative action policies in place, there are still significant barriers that impede the enrollment of underrepresented students at selective institutions.
While affirmative action policies aim to promote diversity and inclusion, they are just one piece of the puzzle, not a silver bullet. Efforts to increase representation of Black, Latinx, and other minority student groups at selective institutions need to focus on comprehensive strategies and address the other barriers these students face in the admission process.
One such barrier is the heavy reliance on standardized tests, specifically the SAT and ACT. While these exams were originally intended to measure college readiness, they have been criticized for their inherent biases that disadvantage students from marginalized backgrounds. Studies have shown that standardized tests often reflect socioeconomic disparities rather than intellectual capabilities. There are also well-documented disparities in access to test preparation and the ability to retake the exams as needed to achieve the desired score. Black and Latinx students, who are more likely to come from underprivileged backgrounds, face additional hurdles when their performance on these exams becomes the primary factor in college admissions.
High costs and a lack of scholarships are another significant challenge for Black, Latinx, and other minority students pursuing higher education. The rising cost of tuition, coupled with the increasing financial burden on students and their families, creates an additional barrier for marginalized communities. Limited access to financial resources hinders their ability to afford quality education and limits their options when choosing colleges. Additionally, the availability of scholarships specifically tailored to the needs of underrepresented students remains limited. Unfortunately, now some states are using the SCOTUS ruling as a means to discontinue race-based scholarships, further exacerbating the financial challenges these students face.
Legacy admissions, a practice in which preference is given to the children of alumni, faculty, and donors, also contributes to the barriers faced by Black and Latinx students. This practice disproportionately benefits white students, as they are more likely to have family members who attended prestigious institutions. Legacy admissions perpetuate inequality by limiting the available spots for underrepresented students, who often lack the same family connections and generational opportunities. By prioritizing legacy admissions, colleges perpetuate a cycle of privilege and impede efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive student body.
Lastly, an aspiration gap among Black and Latinx students further exacerbates the disparities in college admissions. Research has shown that a lower percentage of students of color aspire to attend college compared to their white counterparts. This gap can be attributed to various factors, including limited exposure to college resources, financial constraints, and a lack of confidence due to societal barriers. Addressing this aspiration gap requires targeted efforts to provide mentorship, guidance, and resources, empowering students to pursue higher education and achieve their full potential.
The barriers faced by Black, Latinx, and other minority students in college admissions extend beyond the recent SCOTUS decision on race-based considerations. Only by dismantling these barriers can we create a more equitable and inclusive educational landscape that reflects the true diversity and talent of our society. With this decision, the Supreme Court added yet another barrier, and those with power and influence can counteract it by removing one or more of the existing barriers that have long affected students from minority populations.
If you’re a college leader, I urge you to reassess your institution's admissions practices and commit to holistic approaches that go beyond relying solely on standardized test scores. Embrace diversity as a core value and actively seek out underrepresented students. Encourage them to apply to your institution and provide them with the support and resources they need to thrive, both academically and socially.
If you’re a city leader, prioritize investments in Promise Programs, community outreach initiatives, and partnerships with local colleges to ensure that students have equal access to a quality education. By addressing the root causes of educational disparities, you can help create a more level playing field and increase the representation of underrepresented communities in higher education.
If you’re a state leader, pave the way for increased representation of underrepresented students at selective institutions within your state by enacting policies that support equitable funding, address resource disparities, and expand need-based financial aid programs. One way this can be accomplished is by creating specific scholarships for Black, Latinx, Indigenous students, or location-based scholarships for certain metros or specific high schools. Additionally, reduce reliance on SAT and ACT tests for state funding eligibility.
If you’re a philanthropist or donor, consider funding scholarships, mentorship programs, and initiatives that specifically target and support students from marginalized communities. By investing in their education and empowering them to pursue higher education, you can help break down barriers and create a more inclusive and diverse educational landscape. When funding scholarships at institutions, be very specific about who your donation is to be used for - and make sure there is no “escape clause” - if institutions say they can’t find eligible applicants.
As the national dialogue surrounding affirmative action and college admissions continues, it is crucial to acknowledge that the challenges faced by underrepresented communities extend far beyond the scope of affirmative action policies alone. While the recent SCOTUS decision on race-based college admissions is disheartening, it serves as a reminder that true progress requires a multifaceted approach and bold leaders committed to a more equitable society.