Post-Affirmative Action: What's Next?
Sander at the Ath last spring.
By Rachel Supnick
On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled on one of the most controversial topics in higher education: affirmative action. With a 6-3 conservative supermajority, SCOTUS abandoned years of precedent and effectively struck down race-conscious admissions in the United States.
Opponents have long loathed the policy for its supposed discrimination against White and Asian students in college admissions. In April 2023, Claremont McKenna College invited UCLA School of Law professor Richard Sander – known for suing the University of California system for not releasing admissions data – to speak at the Athenaeum, where he compared today’s race-conscious admissions to the Jewish quotas at Ivy League schools in the 1920s. As a Jewish CMCer in the audience, I was dumbfounded by his claim. Sander and his like-minded colleagues completely miss the point of affirmative action, which is to bring marginalized students up to an
equal playing field in higher education. While Jewish quotas were constructed to keep Jews out, affirmative action was designed to let underrepresented minority students into highly ranked schools like mine. The policy allows groups facing historical, systemic inequality to get a leg up in education. Naturally the result does not favor Whites and Asians, and justly so, as these groups are not facing the same historic socioeconomic disadvantages.
The same opponents of affirmative action often subscribe to the idea that underrepresented students are ill-prepared for the academic rigor of top-tier universities. They argue that students of color end up being hurt by affirmative action when they could have performed better at lower-ranked schools where they were more equally equipped to succeed. This concept is known as the “mismatch theory,” and by no coincidence, Richard Sander is its founder. Studies supporting the existence of this so called “mismatch” are few and far between. In Sander’s talk he pointed to convoluted tables of misleading data showing Black law students earning lower grades on average than White students and requiring more attempts to pass the bar. But in his own study on UC law schools, when the ranking and quality of each students’ undergraduate education is considered, Black and White students perform on par with one another.
The gap in grades could also be attributed to a lack of inclusivity programs designed to help minority students thrive academically and socially at their undergraduate and graduate schools. Recently at CMC’s TedX conference titled “ME-lting Pot” – hosted the same month as Sander’s visit – students of color shared that affinity groups like 1Gen are vital for people of color and first-generation college students to succeed in predominately white institutions like ours. Emerging case studies at universities across the country also show a trend between inclusivity programs and the retention rate of underrepresented minority students.
At North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, for example, Latino first-gen students are thriving under the school’s “Cardinal First” program – an affinity group for first-generation students – compared to their peer group not enrolled in the program. Latino first-generation students in Cardinal First demonstrated an 89% retention rate from their first to second year of college compared to only 52% for students in the same demographic who are not participating in the program. To put it starkly, getting a student into a school is not enough to guarantee they will perform at the same level as their White counterparts from families with multiple generations of schooling, and that reflects the work to be done in improving higher education, not students’ capabilities.
To envision our future without affirmative action, we need only look at the aftermath of California’s Proposition 209. The policy banned the consideration of race, sex, or ethnicity in admissions at California public universities in 1998. The result was alarming: Black and Hispanic enrollment at flagship universities dropped steeply, and minority students cascaded into less selective institutions, according to a comprehensive study performed by Zachary Bleemer, Assistant Professor of Economics at Yale, on applicants to eight campuses in the UC system from 1994 to 2002. While Sander was keen to talk about correcting mismatch, he failed to mention that when underrepresented minority students began attending lower-quality universities post-Prop 209, they graduated at lower rates than before. In the long-run, the students who were pushed down in the education-hierarchy faced lower average wages in their 20s and 30s. All the while, White and Asian students saw little benefit, counter to the long-espoused narrative that these demographics would be better off without racial preferences in admissions.
If the years following Prop 209 are any indication, racial and socioeconomic diversity in universities around the country will soon all but disappear. Policy proposals banning legacy admits and student-athlete preferences may help, but will likely be just as contentious, as will socioeconomic status (SES)-conscious admissions. Supporters of affirmative action must turn to policies that address the root causes of educational inequality: teacher-quality gaps in K-12.
Teachers have proven to be the most essential factor in students’ achievement, yet minority students tend to have less qualified and less effective teachers than their White peers. Transporting students of color to higher-income schools won’t fly with affluent parents whose taxes go towards their kids’ public schools. If we can’t pass laws that bring students to good teachers, we must bring the teachers to them. In a study funded by the US Department of Education, high-performing teachers across ten school districts in seven states were offered
$20,000 bonuses to teach at low-performing schools. Elementary schools in the study saw the black-white achievement gap disappear within four years.
Affirmative action is far gone. To continue giving students of color a fighting chance at a top-tier collegiate education, we must reform our school system from the bottom-up – starting with access to our best teachers. A policy closing teacher-quality gaps in public schools will not come to fruition quickly, but it is worth the investment to enable disadvantaged students to claim the equal opportunities they deserve.