This year, affirmative action was erased from America’s college admissions process. What has long been a protected policy within American universities for the previous half-century has become something of the past with two Supreme Court cases, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina. Due to this outcome, it is vital that we — students, educators, and policymakers alike — seek out alternative solutions to solve what remains a key diversity issue in American universities.
As complicated as the controversy over affirmative action is, its history is just as murky, stemming back to the first half of the twentieth century. Originally, affirmative action had little to do with education, but rather employment laws. Policies began with the Wagner Act in 1935, which limited discrimination in hiring practices and continued with related executive orders from Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.
The actual phrase “affirmative action” did not come to be until John F. Kennedy’s presidency, when he argued for the government to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.”
In this usage, however, affirmative action remained limited to labor and employment issues.
It was not until after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, particularly in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr’s 1968 assassination, that affirmative action finally extended into education. Black enrollment grew at Ivy League universities, and communities of color had new paths forward for institutions that were once turned away from.
Today, many have opposing views on the need for affirmative action. Supporters of affirmative action have argued it is a necessary remedy to systematic racism in the United States. Presently, students of color remain underrepresented on college campuses.
According to The New York Times, Black and Hispanic students “are more underrepresented at top colleges than 35 years ago.”
Conversely, proponents argue that while racism in the education system still exists regardless of class, such policies can fail to help the low-income students of color they were originally designed for. The spirit of affirmative action is snuffed out when it keeps benefiting the top groups, say critics.
With something as complicated as affirmative action, there are no easy answers. However, there are some possible remedies, allowing for a more secure path forward, and in the process, creating a more equitable education system.
One possibility is shifting to a class-based approach. College admissions would now be asking what a student is able to accomplish given their socioeconomic background, rather than race alone. This type of affirmative action would benefit not only lower-income communities, but students of color as well. For example, a high-performing student of color from a disadvantaged background competing with a similarly high-performing student from a wealthier community might be preferred due to the promise of the disadvantaged student who — against all odds — performed well. This might mean that they could outperform the wealthier student if given the same amount of resources.
A second reform would be treating secondary education inequities. Fighting racial disparity at universities should start far before the admissions process. A major drawback for low-income Black and Latinx applicants is that they don’t have the same access to educational resources as their Asian and white counterparts. Reforming secondary education in poorer communities would mean there is far less need for affirmative action in the first place. One potential solution could be transitioning property tax funding to schools through a more egalitarian approach, or shifting away from funding based on average days of attendance (ADA) that disproportionately harm less wealthy students and districts.
Lastly, it is crucial to increase vocational education opportunities. Affirmative action rests on the belief that college is the only answer to breaking out of poverty, when in reality, it can be just the opposite. In far too many cases, students that go to college become indebted for life. If there were more opportunities for vocational education, this could drastically decrease disparities in income based on race. Students continue to believe that a large income is solely based on what college you went to, or if you went to college at all. For example, instead of attending an expensive four-year university, one could enroll in a two-year trade school and later not be saddled by debt. Vocational education, then, supported and advertised by the state and federal government (more than it already is) could support greater outcomes for communities of color.
To conclude, race undoubtedly continues to play a role in a student’s educational opportunities; however, its importance in college admissions is now deemed as unconstitutional. Therefore, it is imperative that we consider new solutions. Of course, these solutions will come with their own set of challenges, particularly with implementation, but the sooner policymakers can take action, the sooner we can reduce lasting inequities in education across all backgrounds. Affirmative action has had half a century to solve stubborn inequities; it is now time to blaze a new path forward.