After Affirmative Action, My Black Daughter Wonders, ‘Do I Belong at a Top College?’
My daughter recently called me in a panic. She said, “I’m not getting into Brown!” I wondered what she was talking about. She had just finished her junior year of high school and hadn’t applied to college yet. Then I realized why she was calling. Two days earlier the United States Supreme Court ruled to end affirmative action. On the heels of the ruling, multiple voices, from legal experts to the Biden administration, explained how colleges and universities can still consider how race affects an applicant’s life, but all my Black daughter heard was: “You don’t belong here.”
Millions of Black, Indigenous and Hispanic students are processing the news. The myth of American meritocracy was shattered for them. Because of our historical systems of structural racism, losing affirmative action laws will make it harder for college applicants from marginalized communities to get an equitable shot at attending their dream colleges — even for the most gifted students.
In these times of lost hope, what our young people need to hear are the same words I told my daughter when she called me: “You are an intelligent, caring, hard-working person with a remarkable story of perseverance. If a college doesn’t accept you, then it’s not where you are supposed to be and it’s their loss.”
In short, our young people need to know they belong.
I have dedicated my career to advancing equitable access to education, helping bring high potential students from historically marginalized communities to top colleges and universities. As a former teacher and in my roles as the executive director of two pre-college programs — the MITES program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke TIP at Duke University — I have seen firsthand how developing a strong sense of belonging is critical for student success.
Researchers have found that young people who experience disrespect, rejection or exclusion are absent from school more often, less engaged in class and earn lower grades — and Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students are at heightened risk of hearing these kinds of messages. The inverse is also true. Studies show that feelings of belonging increase engagement and performance, and reduce dropout rates.
Because young people from racially marginalized communities are more vulnerable to feeling like they don’t belong, it’s critical for these youth to hear that they deserve a high-quality education and are qualified to attend their choice of college.
The reality is that our country has work to do. We have a long way to go to make students of color feel like they belong and to get to a place where the student population at colleges and universities reflects our nation’s changing demographics. When you compare the U.S. population with the racial demographics of students at the top 20 American colleges, according to U.S. News & World Report Best National Rankings for the 2022-23 school year, the data reveals that students from racially marginalized communities, especially Black and Indigenous students, are grossly underrepresented at America’s top universities.
These results illustrate that current college admissions practices at top colleges are not yielding equitable admission opportunities. Further, the practices are not addressing inequities in American history that impact higher education institutions, including the colonization of Indigenous land and culture, the more than 250-year enslavement of Black people, and Jim Crow laws and redlining practices that still place many Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students in under-resourced neighborhoods and K-12 schools.
The Supreme Court decision will keep us on this unjust, inequitable path. We know this because it’s happened before.
In 1996, California banned race-based admissions policies at public universities with the passage of Proposition 209. Prior to that year, the student populations of California’s flagship universities, University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) were mostly representative of the state’s college-eligible population. After Proposition 209 was enacted, underrepresented minority students were 40 percent less likely to be admitted to UC Berkeley and UCLA, according to a study led by researcher Zachary Bleemer. The study also showed that the ban resulted in many Black and Hispanic students enrolled at less competitive campuses.
In an interview with NPR, Bleemer said “Black and Hispanic students saw substantially poorer long-run labor market prospects as a result of losing access to these very selective universities. But there was no commensurate gain in long-run outcomes for the white and Asian students who took their place.”
The long-term economic outcomes of Bleemer’s study are also concerning. The study found that Black and Hispanic students were less likely to earn graduate degrees or enter lucrative science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and these outcomes contributed to a 5 percent average annual decline in applicants’ wages in their 20s and early 30s.
Unless colleges proactively engage students from racially underrepresented communities through pre-college programming and other recruitment strategies that create a sense of belonging for our students and families as early as elementary and middle school, their fate could be the same.
Right now many universities are quietly determining how this Supreme Court ruling will impact their admissions practices. At the same time, our Black, Hispanic and Indigenous high school students are watching and deciding where they should apply to college. Like my daughter, these students are looking for messages and actions that restore their confidence and belief in an equitable review of their academic performance and lived experiences.
It’s time for families, teachers, guidance counselors, and colleges and universities that still believe in creating an equitable education system to send loud, clear, and repetitive messages to our beloved Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students: Yes! You belong.