After Affirmative Action: What colleges need to do

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The US Supreme Court is expected to prohibit, or at least significantly restrict, the practice of considering race and ethnicity as factors in college admissions in the coming days or weeks. Given this likelihood, college leaders across the state and country are considering actions we can take to increase access for students from historically excluded and currently underrepresented groups.

As we prepare for any restrictions that may be imposed by the court, it’s important to remember that a senior’s academic preparation is critical to whether or not they will attend college.

As pointed out in a recent Brookings report, differences in college enrollment rates between white and black students “disappear” when they receive similar levels of preparation in grades 9 through 12. Regardless of race or postcode, the report concludes that ‘differences’ in ‘provision of academic preparation earlier in the educational career’ are the key determinants of college enrollment.

Does this mean that racism is not a barrier to higher education? Absolutely not. However, the Brookings report shows us that racial bias and structural inequalities in education can be reduced through quality preparation.

The report puts it succinctly: “Black, Hispanic, and Asian students with similar high school grades, test scores, and course completions all attend roughly the same rate — a rate that is about five percentage points higher than white students with similar academic performance .” Preparation through these measures.”

For me that was no surprise. As someone who grew up in an immigrant home, qualified for a free lunch, and went to college on a Pell Scholarship, I am acutely aware that my path to college was only made possible by providing me with exceptional educational opportunities. When my youngest sibling started preschool, our single mother, with no college degree, entered the job market and got a job as a switchboard operator at a private high school. Luckily for us, the school made it possible for the employees’ children to attend for free. This experience unlocked my potential and prepared me for the intellectual demands of an Ivy League university.

However, my random path to college is not a reproducible model. The key finding from the Brookings report is that good high school preparation can mitigate the impact of social inequality. If we accept this conclusion, we must confront a pernicious truth: effective academic preparation in grades nine through twelve is more accessible to white students in resource-rich communities because our educational resources are divided by class, which perpetuates social inequality and racial segregation.

So, as a country, we still have to grapple with the multiple ways in which structural inequalities in our society essentially “sort” our young people into channels of opportunity that pave the way to college for some and create hostile obstacles for others. And we must continue to invest heavily in access to higher education, through tools like the Pell Grant program and government-subsidized loans. Earning a tertiary degree is the most powerful driver of economic mobility for lower-income students.

But colleges and universities also play a role. Without support measures, institutions can do their part to eliminate this structural inequality by lowering the barriers to entry for all. Since the pandemic began, many schools have eliminated registration fees and test score requirements. Partnering with high school talent identification programs such as Posse, QuestBridge, College Track, College Visions and College Possible are another way to make college accessible to talented students from underfunded communities.

Another important consideration will be to ensure that our admissions practices take into account the applicant as a whole: their academic preparation, talents, skills and lived experiences – to the extent we can surmise this information within the constraints that the court may impose.

When low-income and first-generation students arrive on campus, we also need to stand by with support to level the playing field. Examples include orientation programs to demystify the expectations and customs of higher education (the so-called ‘hidden curriculum’ of higher education); providing “startup” grants to ensure access to essentials such as laptops and books; a physical space on campus dedicated to supporting student needs; and opportunities for mentoring from faculty and staff who know what it’s like to be the first in the family to graduate.

No college or university can single-handedly address decades of inequality when students arrive on campus. Students from historically marginalized groups and low-income families need better preparation to succeed in college and reap the full benefits of a degree. If the Supreme Court makes the decision that many have been waiting for, higher education institutions will have to do even more to attract applicants from all walks of life and be welcoming places where all students can thrive.

Suzanne M. Rivera is President of Macalester College.