Students applying to colleges have a ‘shred of hope’ post-affirmative action as deadlines loom
Slouched atop a metal stool, Connecticut high school senior Lana lifted their detail brush to a broad black and white painted canvas. They traced an outline of a large ornamental letter in Amharic, the semitic Ethiopian language they spoke before immigrating to the United States at three years old. They took a breath and lifted their brush off the painting to talk.
“The [college] response to affirmative action being repealed was kind of a big deciding factor for me and a lot of other students who are like me,” they said, explaining their college application process. Teachers glanced towards them at the end of the hallway they tucked away in, easel set against a blank wall.
“I ended up reconsidering my plan to apply after everything happened because I was seeing how some schools were responding,” they continued. They shared that to them, some aspects of repealing affirmative action have actually been helpful.
“Now, we're seeing what colleges really thought about diversity.”
Divergent from diversity
In 1978, affirmative action on the educational level — the consideration of racial identity in the college application process — was upheld by the Supreme Court in the case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The lawsuit was filed by Alan Bakke, a white applicant who was denied admission to medical school at the University of California, Davis despite having higher grades and test scores than some of the admitted applicants.
At the time, the school reserved 16 out of 100 spots for underrepresented applicants. The Supreme Court ruled that such quotas violated the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. The practice of keeping quotas was deemed unconstitutional. But, they also determined that race could be used as a factor in application to aid in promoting diversity in education — provided that race was just one of multiple factors.
Since then, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that race may be considered along with other factors in the admissions process based on a “compelling interest;” that interest being the creation of a diverse student body to learn alongside on college campuses.
But in June, affirmative action was overturned in cases filed by conservative activist group Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, respectively. Education experts across the country have said that the decision to repeal affirmative action was likely to set diversity in schools back by decades.
The effects of the decision apply most heavily to highly selective schools in the country, which is approximately 200 institutions out of more than 4,000 that accept fewer than half of applicants. Yet, the balances in these spaces matter, as elite universities continue to exist as a pipeline to decision-making positions in the government. As NPR highlights, 8 of 9 current Supreme Justices received their degrees in law from either Yale or Harvard.
According to an amicus brief filed by a group of over 30 private institutions, including Connecticut and Trinity Colleges and Wesleyan University, research suggests “the percentage of Black students matriculating would drop from roughly 7.1 percent of the student body to 2.1 percent.”
With the early application period opening for many schools in November, prospective students — and colleges — are anxious.
After affirmative action in Connecticut
In the first week of October, the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee held a special meeting outside of their normal session, which begins February 2024. The meeting was called to address the future of race conscious admissions in Connecticut, and was attended by committee legislators, higher education experts, college admissions representatives and students.
Richard Sugarman is the president of Hartford Promise, an organization that provides scholarships to Hartford high school students. He outlined the added difficulty that students from underrepresented communities might face when applying to Connecticut schools and beyond with the loss of affirmative action.
“Preference has not gone away with this affirmative action ruling,” he said. “It's only gone away for one population — students of color. Preference still continues to exist for the wealthy. Preference still continues to exist for legacy, still continues to exist for athletes.”
In an interview with WSHU a few weeks later, Sugarman explained how the existing preferences that he said are baked into U.S. colleges can make a student feel when applying to school.
“A student coming from those more resourced communities and families carries with them a sense that, ‘I'm going to belong there. And I'm going to be someone they want,’” he said.
“Versus, a student coming from a first-generation, low-income family isn't quite sure if they belong. Because they look around their community, and they see where they aren't particularly valued,” Sugarman added. “I think there's a real psychological sort of confidence and positioning piece of this that plays a huge role.”
For example, his organization was started to combat the low rate at which inner-city public high school students in Hartford were completing college, only 23% of high school graduates in 2015.
Sugarman emphasized the importance of fostering a sense of belonging for students who come from underrepresented backgrounds in higher education, even now that affirmative action has been removed from the admissions process. He argued that a diverse student population is imperative for the creation of a strong educational environment. And research backs this up: a 2019 study by the American Council on Education found that racial diversity in education leads to greater productivity, innovation and cultural competency.
But in this year’s application cycle, some of the very students who could add to the educational experience are no longer sure of how they can get to the school in the first place.
Further complicating an already tricky game
Anshul, who used a pseudonym to ensure his anonymity while still in the process of applying to college, is a senior in high school faced with some of the difficulties Sugarman described. He’s Indian, and attends a public high school in Wallingford where “white students find other white students,” he explained. “They wouldn’t really talk with those of color.”
He’s hoping to meet other students with diverse backgrounds in college. And to get there, Anshul has been doing his best to make his case to schools air-tight. Grades? Check — he has about a 4.2 grade point average. Extracurriculars? Check. SAT scores? Check… though he might not have done as well on his writing as he would have liked. He wants to be a doctor, and hopes to advocate for more affordable healthcare.
But since affirmative action was repealed, Anshul has been worried about that future. And he said that last summer’s decision has added a load of confusion onto what can already be a mind-numbing process. “It’s quite confusing,” he said. “Is it really fair to go through this admissions process knowing that affirmative action can't be used for us? People that relied on this have to worry even more…"
“Make it make sense,” Anshul scoffed.
Writing his personal statement, Anshul wasn’t sure how much of his race or background he should bring up, versus how much should remain on the sidelines. And no one told him what it actually meant for affirmative action to be repealed. For months writing his essays, he assumed it meant that prospective students wouldn’t be able to write about race in their application — at all.
“I did fear, if I put race into my application… ‘Are college admissions counselors going to put [my application] to the end of the pile?’” he said.
Anshul said the confusion and anxiety he faced not understanding how the decision led to him to reconsider his entire personal statement, which is the main essay college applicants submit to schools that use the Common Application platform for their admissions process. More than 1,000 colleges use the platform, including all eight Ivy League schools.
His personal statement now details his deep interest in helping others, threading together his interest in healthcare with the well-being of his community. But if he still stood on stable ground with the consideration of affirmative action:
“I would have made my personal statement about the hardship of my parents like moving from India to Canada, then the United States, and not even being able to afford a winter cap. Expressing my background, and how I was affected as well – I would have known that I wrote about what I wanted.”
Realities of the application process today
The job of higher education is to clear up this confusion, advocates say. Peter McDonough, vice president of the American Council on Education, a nonprofit group that advocates for higher education through public policy, said there are no barriers stopping students from sharing their race or background.
In fact, “the Supreme Court decision concluded by emphasizing that students certainly can describe their authentic selves. Schools can ask students questions that would necessarily, for some students, have the student describing an experience or a perception that is informed by their own race or their own ethnicity,” he said.
McDonough also understands how it could be difficult to learn accurate information regarding affirmative action.
“One of the challenges we have in this country right now is that there are so many different places that folks get information from,” he said, including where people get that information. “Misinformation can very quickly and perceptively be viewed as absolutely the facts.”
But students from underrepresented communities often don’t have someone with all the facts to put the perfect package together. This resource gap is where McDonough said schools have the opportunity to create diverse student bodies, even without affirmative action.
“On some level, you could say this is a lemons-to-lemonade moment,” he said. “If you really see value in not only the educational process from having a diverse student body, but you also want to be inclusive, you’ve got to work at it. And that's sort of the challenge now. Right? We've always worked at it. But now we might have to work at it more intensely.”
Looking forward, “I see a shred of hope”
High school senior Lana is a student, painter, ceramicist and golfer, to name a few bullet points on their college application. They also used a pseudonym to ensure their anonymity while still in the process of applying to college.
Sat contemplating the half-finished painting assignment in front of them, they said they think some colleges are already working to make up for affirmative action being repealed. They’ve noticed the effort, and as an African-American student who hopes to go to college alongside other students of color, it’s helped them decide which colleges to apply to.
“I'm really lucky in that the schools that I have decided to apply to are finding ways to kind of work around the decision in a way, ‘cause they still emphasize the importance of having a diverse class,” they said. For other schools, “I was seeing no reaction, which was enough for me to be like, ‘Whoa. Maybe I won’t apply to this school anymore.’”
Lana said one school they’re applying to has reached out to potential applicants with help on how to start the college application itself. “I thought it was kind of sick.”
They said that while other colleges sent messages focusing on the draws of the school, they appreciated the helpful approach towards potential applicants who aren’t familiar with applying at all. “Let’s just figure out the process, ‘cause it’s confusing.”
Currently, Lana attends a private boarding school in Connecticut as a day-student, on almost full financial aid. Having attended Betsy Ross Middle School in New Haven, they were accepted into the high school after applying to a scholarship that allows them to pay only a fraction of the annual tuition.
Their school has a history of diversity in comparison to other institutions of similar cost. After they decided to attend, they remember the jabbing comments made directly to them or their family.
“I remember when I did get in, there were a lot of people saying, ‘You've just got in because you're Black. You didn't really deserve to get in.’” they recollected. With a twinge of condescension, they continued: “Contrary to some beliefs, you still have to be qualified to get into the schools that you're applying to.”
The teen shared that the use of affirmative action allowed racist opinions about students not “deserving” to attend certain educational institutions proliferate. Without it, people can’t use the practice to explain why students of color like them got a spot at a school.
Some education advocates have argued that affirmative action can help ensure that schools look diverse, but also that the practice acted as an incomplete Band-Aid solution and did little to address systemic issues that cause underrepresentation of Black and Brown students in schools in the first place. In his concurring opinion in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas echoed the sentiment:
“It seems increasingly clear that universities are focused on 'aesthetic' solutions unlikely to help deserving members of minority groups… the [affirmative action] programs risk continuing to ignore the academic underperformance of “the purported ‘beneficiaries’” of racial preferences and the racial stigma that those preferences generate.”
Lana said the court’s decision over the summer provides a chance for higher education institutions to dig deeper into issues of systemic racism in the U.S., but those schools have to act — and fast.
“You can't fix a broken window when the foundation is cracked. The house is going to fall apart, no matter what,” they said, putting down their paintbrush. “Our time is running out to actually make those changes. If we don't act quickly, then it will fall out of the minds of the American public.”
Lana recognizes a chance for the college application process to be recreated , although they’re not sure how many colleges see it themselves. “That’s a shred of hope that I hold.”
Looking for answers
Just a month before most higher education institutions opened their undergraduate applications for the 2023-2024 season, an essential practice in racial equity was repealed, creating a historic application cycle for college hopefuls across the United States.
But this isn’t the first time affirmative action has been banned. Since its formalization in 1978, nine states have previously banned the practice — California (reaffirmed in 2020), Washington (reaffirmed in 2019), Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Idaho.
McDonough at the American Council on Education said the decision the court made last summer wasn’t unexpected. And though many states that had repealed affirmative action individually struggled with diversity in their schools, it gives institutions across the country precedent to study.
“One of the things that gives me some hope is that we all learn from each other,” McDonough said. “We can't predict… what will happen this cycle. But we can be interested in seeing, when it’s over, whether there were some positive surprises.”