The upcoming SCOTUS decision will, yet again, be a landmark case on the topic of affirmative action. We’ve made countless strides as a nation to level the playing field for diversity in all forms. But there is still much work to do, and we are running the risk of regressing.
In 1995 when the University of California Board of Regents (followed by the state one year later) banned affirmative action, the enrollment rates of Black and Latinx students drop by 50% at the system’s Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses. What will those numbers look like today?
Grief and trauma caused by institutionalized bigotry and discrimination have plagued this nation for decades. Over the last three years, an endless media cycle fueled by divisive politics and a global pandemic deepened discord. We are navigating through a time in which how we self-identify is constantly scrutinized in politics and through legislative action.
Let’s acknowledge the “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Let’s acknowledge the discourse surrounding critical race theory and the actions being taken to ensure it isn’t taught in classrooms in Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. All while seeing, in real-time, the harmful impact of omitting or ignoring our nation’s troubled history with racial divides, class divides, wealth divides, and more.
Let’s also acknowledge that there’s long been a stubborn gap between high-income and white students, and low-income and Black students when it comes to earning a postsecondary degree. At PeerForward, we have worked in hundreds of schools and students in low-income communities to narrow this gap. We empower teams of students to lead their classmates on the path to and through higher education. We see the effort students have to make to overcome information deficits, lack of postsecondary expectations, limited funds, and poor postsecondary planning.
Now, education equity seems to be getting harder — not easier — to achieve. The pandemic delivered a big blow, with a rapid 13% decline in Black student enrollment in 2020-21 and another 6% decline in 2021-22. And now, with affirmative action on the line and the risk of a tool for fighting in the battle for equity could soon be taken away. It’s a one-two punch.
If affirmative action is declared unconstitutional, universities will be tasked with finding alternative means of creating and nurturing diverse student bodies and staff. Any deterrent to welcoming students from diverse backgrounds — be it related to income/wealth, race, gender, or disabilities — is an injustice to everyone in our nation.
In our capitalist society/economy, a postsecondary degree remains a “golden ticket,” a necessary tool to be leveraged for those seeking to join the workforce and achieve economic agency. Where does eliminating affirmative action leave students in low-income families and communities? Students in Black and Brown and other marginalized communities that don’t have the luxury of generational wealth — or even generational education — to fall back on?
The college experience provides students with far more than a degree or credential. It builds networks, community, offers opportunities for self-exploration, and provides a path to individual independence.
Banning affirmative action threatens all those possibilities for those who are not rich or white. For students from neighborhoods and communities in which opportunities are scarce, eliminating affirmative action will only make their lives harder. It will make the work for those of us committed to narrowing education inequities harder, too.
The pandemic setback and the threat to affirmative action are major new fronts in the battle for education equity. We must fight on. We won’t give up until all students have similar opportunities to dream, learn, achieve, innovate, and lead — free of barriers and with a sense of institutional support.
Gary Z. Linnen, CEO of PeerForward, is a NYC native, Cornell University graduate, and the first in his family to graduate from a higher education institution. Since joining PeerForward after its original co-founders, Gary has steered its programs for more than a decade, cultivating deep experience in youth development, program innovation, and organizational leadership.