The Supreme Court’s Decision on Race-Conscious Admissions Cements Racial Inequality in America
Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce
Dear Friends and Colleagues:
Today's US Supreme Court decision to sharply curtail the consideration of applicants' race/ethnicity in the college admissions process shines a spotlight, once again, on an uncomfortable truth: racism is alive and well in America. The ugly interpersonal dimensions of racism in our country have become increasingly apparent in recent years, made plain in our political discourse and in devastating acts of violence. As the consequences of the Supreme Court's decision begin to unfold in shifting enrollments across the postsecondary system, the depth of institutionalized racism will become more evident as well.
Confronting our nation's long history of subjugation, repression, and cruelty is imperative if we are to ensure that the United States lives up to its promise of providing equal opportunity to all. Instead, the Supreme Court has erected new barriers to practices that were initially intended to right the injustices of the past, risking a return to pre–Civil Rights Era segregation in our selective colleges and universities. Previous Supreme Court justices, uncomfortable with admitting to the existence of systemic racial bias, shifted the legal justification for affirmative action from societal justice to the educational benefits of diversity. This latest decision severs the thread between selective postsecondary admissions and reparative justice altogether. Meanwhile, systematic inequality grounded in racial and socioeconomic segregation persists within the education system and beyond it.
Our education system is rigged to benefit those who already have race and class privilege, and to disadvantage those who don't. A kindergartner with top-halftest scores and a family in the bottom quartile of socioeconomic status (SES) has a 31 percent chance of being in the top half of SES as a young adult. Meanwhile, a kindergartner with bottom-halftest scores and a family in the top quartile of SES has a 71 percent chance of being in the top half of SES as a young adult. These differences are similarly visible along racial/ethnic lines: a white kindergartner with bottom-halftest scores has a 60 percent chance of being in the top halfof SES as a young adult, while a Black/African American kindergartner with top-half test scores has a 45 percent chance being in the top half of SES as a young adult.
The postsecondary system can play a big part in advancing inequality, as a college degree has become increasingly essential to economic opportunity. Today, college is the most certain pathway to the middle class: by 2031, 72 percent of all jobs in the country will go to workers with at least some college education, as will 85 percent of good jobs (those paying a minimum of $38,000 per year for young workers and a median of $72,000 for all workers nationwide). Selective colleges in particular are an avenue to success—offering higher graduation rates than the rest of the postsecondary system, direct connections to top jobs, and throughways to positions of political influence. But these colleges are closed off to most: not only are they exceedingly difficult to get into, they are also prohibitively expensive.
The court's decision will cement the status quo, making it all the more difficult for selective colleges to serve as engines of opportunity for students from all racial/ethnic backgrounds. While essays arguing that an applicant's racial/ethnic identity contributed to their character may still be permitted, the onus of proving the personal impacts of systemic racism will be placed on the shoulders of individual students, while students with privilege will continue to silently benefit from their advantages. Wealthy and white students will continue to have the upper hand in a system that was built to benefit them. We want our colleges and universities to reward merit, but we already know that their version of merit is a myth: for example, if colleges admitted students solely based on admissions test scores, more than half of students currently enrolled in selective colleges, including 46 percent of white students, would be displaced.
Many colleges will look for ways to achieve racial/ethnic diversity without considering race, but they are not likely to be successful. Some argue that consideration of socioeconomic status is a fairer way of redressing disadvantage than consideration of race, and that class-conscious admissions will lead to improved levels of racial diversity in the most selective US colleges and universities. But our analysishas demonstrated that class is not, in fact, an equal substitute for race in selective admissions, and the court's decision suggests that proxies for race will be subject to legal challenges.
In the short term, the most viable options for selective colleges hoping to maintain existing levels of diversity include expanding the applicant pool to include a much broader population of prospective students; ending admissions preferences for legacies, the children of donors, and athletes; and significantly expanding financial aid to make college more affordable for disadvantaged students. The logic of the decision would dictate that preferences for legacies, the children of donors, and athletes should end: if we as a country wish to do away with preferences based on race or ethnicity, it is only fair that we do away with all preferences, including those benefiting the well-connected. Unfortunately, none of these possible solutions is particularly likely to be adopted system-wide.
If we cannot rely on the college admissions process to create more equitable access for historically underrepresented students, the focus must shift to the K-12 system—where some may say it should have been all along. At the state level, many educational justice advocates have prevailed in the courts, affirming their state constitutions' promises to provide all students with an education that is adequate to prepare them for successful adulthood. In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision, these efforts will become the front line in the ongoing legal battle for educational opportunity.
The promise of America lies in the ideal that we are all inherently equal, deserving of the same opportunities regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic background, or geographic location. We look to our education system to fulfill that promise by rewarding hard work and talent. But in doing so, we expect fairness from a system that has never been fair. Today, the US Supreme Court has enshrined the system's shortcomings by solidifying advantage for those who already have it.
Anthony P. Carnevale
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