The US Supreme Court decisions in the two Students for Fair Admissions cases last month ended the ability for selective colleges to practice race-conscious admissions, otherwise known as affirmative action. This is a devastating blow to efforts to increase racial equity in higher education, and to provide an education in which students on those campuses are exposed to a broad range of lived experiences and ideas in the classroom and in late-night chats in the dorm.
Nine states in the US already had bans on affirmative action, mostly through state referenda, so we have a sense of what will happen with a nationwide ban that starts this fall. Enrollment of Black, Latinx, and Native American students will decline, at the undergraduate level as well as graduate and professional schools. As a result, underrepresented minority students will attend lower-status colleges, and they will be less likely to graduate. At a time when so many companies have committed to increasing diversity and promoting racial justice in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, that task will become harder to fulfill.
Some argue that colleges should pivot to class-based considerations in admission. The reality is that class and race are not mutually exclusive. Selective colleges have already dramatically increased the number of students who are the first in their families to go to college, as well as financial aid for families that cannot afford the ever-growing tuition, room, and board. They can and must do more. But the reality is that without additional sources of funding for financial aid, increasing attention to class will prove impossible. The end of race-conscious admissions is unlikely to convince donors with deep pockets to contribute large sums to financial aid instead of a building on which they can plant their name as a legacy. And, research shows that racial inequality continues to affect the lived experiences of Americans above and beyond class inequality.
Overall, we should stop seeing admissions as an individual meritocracy, or a reward that is earned by some, and not by others. No one deserves a spot at Harvard, MIT, or any other selective college. A level-playing field in which applicants have equal opportunity to compete is impossible in our highly unequal society. And, admission is and should be about selecting students based on the mission of the university — what group of students can together help colleges fulfill their goals of contributing to society and developing the leaders of tomorrow? Parents, students, teachers, and the rest of us should stop feeding the myth of meritocracy to our youth, and encourage them to grow into their best selves, no matter what the impact on their college application.
Natasha Warikoo is a sociology professor at Tufts University and author of “Is Affirmative Action Fair?: The Myth of Equity in College Admissions“