A realistic plan for a future without affirmative action

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In the coming months, the Supreme Court will once again hear cases regarding affirmative action that could end race-based admissions for colleges and universities. Despite similar challenges, the Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action in the past. Race-based affirmative action has been a key factor in promoting diversity on college campuses and has helped institutions create greater equity in their admission practices.    

However, two new conservative jurors on the court — Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — along with the consolidation of the two cases from Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, seem to indicate a willingness to revisit previously set precedent on the topic.  

Given the importance of affirmative action in creating educational equity for Black, Indigenous and Latinx students, state and institution leaders should start preparing now for ways to ensure they continue equitable admission practices even without affirmative action.   

In a legal sense, affirmative action was designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination, remedy the effects of prior discrimination and prevent future discrimination. President John F. Kennedy first introduced affirmative action in a 1961 executive order as a way to ensure federal contractors were treated equally regardless of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.   

The idea quickly spread, and in 1978 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that universities could use race as one factor for admission. While this same ruling banned racial quotas, it created the basis for college admissions policies that expanded access to historically excluded racial groups to ensure a diverse campus community. Since that time, numerous other cases have appeared in front of the Supreme Court, all resulting in a similar opinion: Institutions have a vested interest in creating a diverse community.  

There are numerous benefits to a diverse campus community. Diversity enriches the educational experience, as we learn from those whose beliefs and perspectives differ from our own. Diversity promotes personal growth, as it encourages critical thinking and communication with people from different backgrounds. Diversity strengthens America’s economic competitiveness by bringing various experiences and cultures together to think in innovative ways. Each of these outcomes are critical to the overall mission of the American higher education system: to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to be well-informed citizens and secure high-quality employment. However, without the ability to utilize race-based affirmative action, institutions will have to look for other ways to create a diverse community.   

The use of income-based admissions policies can support the creation of a diverse campus community. Societies with higher levels of income inequality see increased crime ratesreduced health outcomesless stable economies and overall lower levels of happiness. The college-going process is expensive. Access to SAT/ACT prep and tutoring is cost-prohibitive. College applications oftentimes have a fee to be paid by the applicant. Implementing income-based admissions practices could provide a pathway to higher education, especially for students with unique needs and experiences on the basis of race and income.  

Income-based admissions policies are not enough. Systemic racism and intergenerational wealth have allowed white households to amass more wealth than households of color. Students from underfunded school systems have less support for the college-going process, such as access to guidance counselors, AP courses and dual enrollment. As a result, any admissions policies implemented to increase campus diversity should be coupled with targeted and intentional recruitment methodology, as these can promote access for historically excluded and underrepresented demographic groups. High school demographic information is readily available, and institutions of higher education can target marketing to high schools from which they would like to see higher enrollment rates.   

Make no mistake about it, racially conscious admissions policies are critically important to closing equity gaps. It is undeniable that Black, Indigenous and Latinx people in America face a wide array of obstacles and challenges — simply due to the color of their skin. Systemic racism continues to be pervasive and must be eradicated.  

However, the fight is not lost if race-based affirmative action is overturned; instead, we must be open-minded to other practices and initiatives that continue to foster diverse campuses across America. Even if race-based affirmative action survives this challenge, targeted and intentional recruitment would further equity in college access and enrollment.  

As John F. Kennedy once said, “a rising tide lifts all boats” and higher education has the opportunity to be that sea of equity.   

Javaid Siddiqi, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Hunt Institute.

Tags Affirmative action Affirmative action in the United States Amy Coney Barrett Brett Kavanaugh Discrimination Institutional racism John F. Kennedy race and society Racism University and college admissions

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