The American Council on Education, NASPA, and 36 other higher education organizations recently filed an Amicus Brief in support of race-conscious admission practices. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey echoed this support in a brief filed early in November. Approaching the Fisher v. Texas case’s second hearing before our nation’s highest court, supporters of affirmative action have focused on the legal and historical merit of these practices in creating access for underrepresented individuals. Indeed, race-conscious admissions practices are important in achieving the educational benefits associated with a diverse student body while affirming access to postsecondary education. But given that postsecondary attainment is increasingly a pre-requisite to socioeconomic stability in our nation’s economy, it is also important to consider the inequitable socioeconomic implications that a ban on race-conscious admissions might provoke.
While advocates of banning race-conscious practices support income-centered, race-neutral admissions options as promoted in a 2012 Century Foundation Study, they place heavy emphasis on test scores without accounting for the many elements of holistic review. These factors include race-conscious considerations as well as illuminate a more holistic depiction of an applicant’s college readiness and fit through essays, community service and leadership, and co-curricular activities to name a few. A sole focus on merit and income disregards that colleges and universities have dynamic missions that differentiate them and that set parameters for their varied selectivity. The central limitation of the race-neutral argument in the study is that it does not consider the historical or economic context of why race-conscious admissions policies are necessary even when using socio-economic status.
Turning to data, an article recently published in the Boston Globe highlighted that states with bans on race-conscious admissions have lower enrollment of minority freshmen than states without these restrictions. Despite a cited increase in Black and Hispanic enrollment at public universities in these states, the article pointed out that these numbers still do not reflect the number of Black and Hispanic high school graduates.
Where are these students going? National Center for Education Statistics enrollment data from the 2013 academic year suggest that community colleges serve the largest number of Black and Hispanic students (see the chart below). Of course, two-year institutions are important contributors to educational attainment and economic growth. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics affirm the utility of two- and four-year degree completion in shielding graduates from long-term unemployment. Additionally, two-year institutions are often the nearest geographically for many students, and predominantly Hispanic areas with lower educational attainment levels tend to have significantly fewer four-year institutions, as noted by Nicholas Hillman in his presentation titled Geography and College Opportunity at the 2015 Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) Conference. Nevertheless, differences in enrollment patterns that exist along racial lines should give us pause.
In a 2014 study titled Understanding the Racial Transfer Gap, Gloria Crisp and Anne-Marie Nuñez pointed out that while some students transfer from community colleges into four-year institutions, this is not the case for many. When these researchers divided low-income white and underrepresented minority (Hispanic and Black) students with transfer aspirations, they discovered that minorities transferred into four-year institutions at a lower rate than their low-income white peers. The study also revealed that different factors influenced transfer by race. Vocational programs, in particular, were affiliated with lower transfer rates for low-income underrepresented minorities. From this research, it is clear that the disproportionate number of low-income minority students who attend community colleges are unlikely to progress beyond these institutions. These findings parallel gaps in workforce outcomes by race, which among other considerations have been ignored by supporters of race-neutral admissions.
It is important to note that our nation’s legal system has examined the merits and defined the use of race as one of many factors in admissions policy, finding that, in the absence of suitable alternatives, a narrowly-tailored approach is an appropriate means to achieve diversity. These legal precedents are important both for the educational value of a diverse student body and the economic value of a workforce that can keep pace with our nation’s dynamic economy.
If the outcome of Fisher v. Texas leads to a ban or substantive modification to the use of race as a factor in admissions, and given inequity that has occurred in states following such bans, the impact on access for our nation’s increasingly diverse demography could deepen racial disparities that linger in our nation’s increasingly college-based economy.
It is critical that college access and economic progress are not undermined by bans or significant modification to race-consciousness as a factor in admissions policy. With a national push for increased educational attainment, it is important that historically underrepresented minorities have opportunities for educational growth and career advancement and that the goal for increased attainment means increased attainment for individuals of all races and ethnicities. When legal structures permit educational and economic disparity to persist along racial lines, history and the present both reveal that alternative strategies fail to deliver the progress our nation desperately needs.