When a conservative Supreme Court majority effectively ended the use of affirmative action in college admissions, it disregarded more than 40 years of precedent — and the realities of systemic racial discrimination.
Meanwhile, the court left affirmative action for the wealthy in place. While colleges can no longer consider race as one of many factors in admissions, they can freely give preference to the children of wealthy and well-connected alumni.
Protecting diversity on campus creates better paths to opportunity for students of every race. The question now is to figure out how.
Affirmative action aims to address structural inequalities that historically have placed mostly children of white, wealthy alumni just a couple of yards from the end zone — while keeping Black, brown and low-income applicants way downfield.
But most universities also recognize that diversity is essential to prepare all students for a full and productive life. Study after study indicates that diversity in schools benefits not only historically marginalized groups but the whole student body — and with it our workforce, economy and democracy.
Diversity exposes students to new ways of thinking and new cultures, promoting respect across differences and preparing students to live and work with those different from them. This is why many institutions of higher learning put such an emphasis on affirmative action.
Merely perpetuating the privileges of primarily white and already wealthy students through legacy admissions not only fails to advance these more significant goals, but it drives us backward. And it’s unfair.
Despite the court’s ruling, schools must still adhere to state and federal civil rights laws that require equal access to educational opportunities and eliminate obstacles that historically marginalized communities have experienced.
So what can be done? One commonly discussed option is to consider factors like household wealth and income as a metric for admissions. Another is to target underserved communities for recruitment.
Any step that helps lower-income students access higher education is worth taking. But considering socioeconomic status won’t increase racial diversity by itself. When California and Michigan banned affirmative action in college admissions years ago, they substituted these tools to achieve racial diversity.
Black and brown enrollment still plummeted. Among other reasons, considering economic factors alone can still leave out middle-class applicants of color who might otherwise face discrimination.
Fortunately, there are more tools colleges can use. For one thing, the Supreme Court ruling still allows race to be considered — not as a criterion in and of itself but as a factor that has affected an applicant’s life.
If students can show how they have overcome discrimination, segregation or underfunded schools in a way that demonstrates their overall capabilities, colleges are still allowed to consider this. Colleges must make full use of this permission.
Meanwhile, they need to lower other barriers to entry. Standardized testing has been shown to disadvantage students of color, so it should not be used as part of any admissions process. Nor should a child’s past involvement with the juvenile justice system, which is deeply discriminatory.
Finally, the cost of higher education must be drastically reduced, community colleges should be free, and the path from community college to a four-year institution must be made more accessible. And those legacy admissions — affirmative action for children of wealthy alumni — must be eliminated.
These steps and more can greatly increase diversity and equal access to opportunity in higher education. But that doesn’t mean the fight for affirmative action should end.
Affirmative action is still needed to address injustices that disadvantage Black, Latinx and indigenous communities. Colleges and universities must be loud about their support for affirmative action and its necessity to their missions. Court cases can still be fought and won. Legislation can help.
Pretending that we live in a colorblind society leads to even greater inequities. “The majority’s vision of race neutrality will entrench racial segregation in higher education because racial inequality will persist so long as it is ignored,” as Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent.
We who care about a healthy country striving for racial equity must demand the restoration of affirmative action — and for schools to use every tool they have to ensure a diverse student body.