On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the use of affirmative action in college admissions. The consequences from this decision will reverberate across the nation and threaten to reverse decades of progress in diversifying our college campuses. This is a step back from providing educational opportunity for every student.
Banning race as a factor in college admissions does a disservice by ignoring our nation’s history of racial discrimination, pretending that that same inequality does not still plague our institutions. It may look different from what we learn in history textbooks, but segregation still very much exists. According to a report by EdBuild, more than half of the country’s schoolchildren attend racially concentrated school districts, where over three-quarters of students are white or nonwhite. The Supreme Court majority wishes to ignore this and instead set equality before the law, while disregarding the fact that reality calls for equity. This ignorance will hinder the ability of marginalized students to achieve their dreams of a higher education, as demonstrated in California after the state banned race-conscious admissions in 1996. In 1996, Black students at UCLA made up 7% of the student body, however by 1998 this percentage had fallen to 3.43%.
Affirmative action represents more than banning race-conscious college admissions. This practice was first established as an acknowledgement of the long road ahead for our nation in dismantling centuries of institutionalized racism. Prohibiting the use of affirmative action is equivalent to saying that this work is over and that racism no longer exists in the United States. This decision therefore threatens to overturn other equity-based policies such as race-based financial aid and scholarships, blocking access to college for hard-working impoverished marginalized students who pass the admissions process but can’t afford to attend.
I fear for those graduating from my alma mater high school, where a large portion of the student population come from low-income and immigrant households. Many of us don’t have access to the financial and social capital of our peers from higher-income families, yet we’re still expected to compete against them in the college admissions process. This wouldn’t be a problem if equal access to educational resources existed across the board.
However, as it stands, schools serving predominantly lower-income populations have less access to highly-qualified teachers, advanced coursework, and experience higher educator turnover rates. All of these factors have a compounded effect in decreasing student achievement and, due to our nation’s history of discriminatory policies in areas such as housing, these dimensions of disparity are heavily aligned with race.
According to the Learning Policy Institute, turnover rates are 70% higher for teachers serving the largest concentrations of students of color and nearly 50% higher for teachers serving Title I schools. These overwhelming turnover rates contribute to the even greater cycle of inequitable distribution of qualified teachers in high-need schools.
Novice teachers are also often located in high-need schools that tend to have less attractive working conditions and fewer resources. Meanwhile, low-need schools are able to attract more experienced teachers with higher salaries. Consequently, fewer resources are being distributed to the schools with the highest need.
Due to the impact of segregationist policies, all of this ties back to race. According to a 2011 Stanford study, students of color in low-income schools were 3 to 10 times more likely to have unqualified teachers than students in predominantly white schools. The study also shows that the distribution of educational resources is incredibly uneven.
As a Latina student who attended schools with a predominant Latinx student population, I experienced these statistics first-hand throughout my K-12 education. In fifth grade, there were several months where we had a substitute for math. Practically everything we learned during that time came from paper packets, and when we were assigned a new teacher it was someone with less than a year of teaching experience. By the time we reached middle school it was clear we had missed out on several key units. This occurred once again in middle school with social studies. No doubt some of these circumstances were out of the school’s control; however, missing out on weeks or months of class time can be detrimental to student learning and put students of marginalized backgrounds at a disadvantage.
School leadership is also important to setting a good school climate for student achievement, however these turnover rates are also high among schools serving predominantly low-income, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students. In just the past five years, my former high school has had three different principals.
Resource distribution is not equal in K-12 education, and yet when it comes time to send in those standardized test scores, essays, and transcripts for college applications, students from marginalized backgrounds are expected to have comparable results to those with greater resources. Affirmative action helps take into account the differences across a pool of applicants from a wide variety of schooling backgrounds. By speaking to other college students about their high schools, I learned about the differences in our experiences. I remember the surprise I felt the first time someone told me their high school curriculum allowed them to start taking AP classes in freshman year. On the other hand, in part due to staffing issues and course offerings, the norm in my school was to wait until junior year to enroll in AP classes.
Even in schools that do happen to offer more AP courses, studies have found that gaps in AP course enrollment for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students are greater in high schools offering the highest number of AP courses. Even if the problem isn’t necessarily how many advanced courses are offered, racial gaps still exist in AP enrollment within schools. Whether this is due to educator bias in AP recommendations, inequitable access to quality early childhood education, or funding inequities, it is clear that these disparities are disproportionately marked along racial lines.
While comparing my high school experience with that of my college peers, I also noticed there were many similarities and patterns in our experiences, especially those of us from rural backgrounds. We spoke to each other about the racial concentrations in our schools and how districts usually seemed to have at least one high-achieving predominantly white high school and then that one majority BIPOC high school with low test scores. During one memorable conversation, a white classmate told me how they were initially supposed to go to the predominantly BIPOC high school in their district, but was transferred to a charter school. Looking back, I realize that this happened with a lot of other white students from my middle school. They were either moved to their district’s charter school or to the majority white high school. This reflects the truth of continued segregation, causing the quality of education to become dependent on zip code and whether you can afford to move to wealthier areas.
With all of these inequities, affirmative action is supposed to be what evens out the playing field, even when those of us from marginalized backgrounds face an uphill battle in the college admissions arena. We do what we can with the hand that fate has dealt us, but fate is not always kind. So we depend on our institutions to account for these inequalities instead of exacerbating them. While the Court turns a blind eye to the rights of millions of students, we must continue to fight for equity and ensure that education as “the great equalizer” becomes more than an empty promise.