Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia just stirred up another controversy with comments about why African Americans might be better off if they are not accepted into top colleges and universities but rather to “slower-track” schools.” Scalia made the comments during a court hearing in a case challenging the race-conscious admissions plan at the University of Texas at Austin. He said in part:

“There are — there are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to — to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having slower-track school where they do well. One of — one of the briefs pointed out that — that most of the — most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas….
“They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re – that they’re being pushed ahead in — in classes that are too — too fast for them….
“I’m just not impressed by the fact that — that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer. And maybe some — you know, when you take more, the number of blacks, really competent blacks admitted to lesser schools, turns out to be less. And — and I — I don’t think it — it — it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.”

Scalia’s comments have been slammed by critics as being racist — and defended, too, by conservatives — but less attention has been paid to the following argument: They expose a problem within higher education itself.  Here is a post on that issue, written by Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina. This appeared on his blog, where you can find the complete version, and I am republishing it with permission.

By Paul Thomas

There is a story that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is inadvertently exposing: the negligence of higher education to teach the students who walk the halls and sit in the classrooms after being admitted.

First, let me pull away from that specific claim to a broader pet peeve of mine: remediation.

Throughout formal education at every level from pre-K through undergraduate (and even graduate) education, students are commonly labeled as remedial (a designation that suggests the students are not at the proper level for the course they are taking) and thus need some additional services.

This is total hogwash. All students are remedial, and no students are remedial. You see, the essential role of a teacher and formal education is to identify what knowledge and skills students have as well as what knowledge and skills students lack (or need developing), and then to teach those students in that context.

So let’s return to higher education in the United States—where attending college is not a basic right and is often a tremendous burden on students and their families.

A significant number of students are admitted to colleges and universities for the benefit of the institution (full-pay students and athletes, as the most prominent examples). Often, these populations fall into the deficit category of “remedial,” or would be the exact type of student Scalia has now further marginalized with the damning blanket of racism.

From the most accessible (in terms of admissions) public colleges to the most selective private colleges, access to higher education in the United States is nonetheless selective. In other words, colleges accept students (and reject others) under the tacit contract that each belongs there and that the university will provide the education for which the student (or someone) is paying.

I have taught public school in the impoverished rural South and a selective liberal arts university. Those two contrasting settings have shown me that I often taught diligently at the high school setting with little concrete evidence I was successful (many students still scored low in standardized testing), but that I could (if I chose to do so) do very little with my college students (extremely bright and motivated) and there would still be ample evidence of success.

And herein lies the issue no one is talking about beneath the embarrassment of Justice Scalia’s comments: vulnerable populations of students admitted to colleges and universities (often black, brown, poor, and English language learners)—those who need higher education the most, in fact—are being neglected by the very institutions who admit them, often after actively recruiting them (again, the athletes).

I teach two sections of writing-intensive first-year seminars each academic year. The greatest difference between my successful and struggling students is their experiences and relative privilege before attending my university.

Successful students have “done school” in ways suitable for college expectations before while struggling students rarely have.

Too often, echoing Scalia, many in higher education shake their collective heads and mutter these students shouldn’t be “at our college.”

Too often, higher education is a place that simply has no interest in teaching—opting instead for gate-keeping (masking privilege with the bigoted allure of measurable qualifications), housing students for a few years, and then taking credit for the outcomes.