Finding the way to college
Before June ends, an ultra-conservative U.S. Supreme
Court is likely to strike down affirmative action in college
admissions, a practice that has stood for decades. While
equal justice advocates will be upset by the court’s action,
the demise of official affirmative action policies won’t hurt
black or brown students as much as advocates fear.
That’s because the far bigger problem facing those
students is the lack of preparation for college and the lack
of funds to pay for a four-year degree. That’s especially
true for black men, whose college enrollment dropped 14
percent from spring 2020 to spring 2021.
For those black students who enroll, retention rates are
lower than those of white students. About 51 percent of
black students in public four-year colleges receive a
degree over six years, compared to a national average of
Although those statistics illuminate deeper problems,
they’d hardly make the high court right if it decides to ban
affirmative action policies. Those policies were enacted to
try to help black Americans gain ground after centuries of
systemic, legally-enforced racism. After generations of
educational injustice, including laws that outlawed
teaching enslaved people to read, it was obvious that the
achievement gap couldn’t be overcome without giving
black students a boost. Even now, only 28 percent of black
adults over 25 have four-year degrees, compared to 42
percent of white adults and 61 percent of Asian-American
adults, according to Pew Research. Affirmative action
practices haven’t helped to close the gap very much —
another reason why its demise won’t be as detrimental as
Efforts to boost racial diversity have been practiced most
enthusiastically at the nation’s most selective colleges and
universities, including the Ivy League schools, which pride
themselves on educating the nation’s leadership class.
For students entering in 2020, Princeton enrolled a class
in which blacks accounted for 15 precent, while Harvard,
Yale and Vanderbilt all had 14 percent.
Those are also the schools that attract the most ambitious
students and parents, leaving a lot of disappointment —
and resentment of affirmative action — among that cohort.
Princeton, for example, accepts about 4.4 percent of its
applicants. If the school were lily white, most applicants
still wouldn’t get in.
Nevertheless, bitterness about rejections has helped to
fuel the anti-affirmative action movement. Oddly, there is
no broad movement against other practices that bestow
favoritism, including legacies (students with a family
member who attended the school). As Tamara Gilkes Borr
writes in Slate, legacies are three times more likely to be
admitted and the children of alumni are 15 times more
likely to be admitted to elite schools.
To be clear, the Ivies and near-Ivies have never accepted
students of any color who were unqualified to do the work.
At most of them, race is one factor among many. Students
typically submit essays and lengthy resumes full of
accomplishments, from community service to school
clubs, that weigh heavily in admissions. Black students
may have slightly lower test scores, but they still graduate.
Meanwhile, many flagship state universities don’t try very
hard to recruit black students. About 8 percent of the
students at the University of Georgia are black, though the
state is 30 percent black. About 12 percent of the students
at the University of Mississippi are black, though the state
is 36 percent black. Black students comprise about 12
percent of the student body at the University of Alabama,
while blacks account for 26 percent of that state’s
population. Black undergraduates account for less than 4
percent of the student body at the University of Michigan,
while blacks account for about 14 percent of the state
There is nothing to be done, though, but to prepare for a
post-affirmative action world. The challenge lies in the high
school years, when so many black and brown students,
especially young men, start to invest heavily in activities
outside their studies. They need to be supported with
tutors, with teachers who believe in them, with clear
pathways to post-secondary work. They need financial
resources so they can stay in college once they enroll.
They may not attend Harvard or Princeton, but they can
still get a college degree.