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How public colleges have already backed away from affirmative action

Monday’s Supreme Court oral arguments will probably focus on elite schools. But most low-income students of color come up against a different barrier.

5 min

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Many observers believe that this conservative court may rule that colleges and universities must not consider race as a factor in admissions, which could make it harder for Black and Latino students to enter many universities, and for institutions to create racially diverse campuses.

But while much of the debate about these cases has focused on elite private schools like Harvard, they won’t be the only ones affected. Restricting schools’ ability to consider race in admissions will also affect public institutions — both selective ones like UNC Chapel Hill and the less-selective schools attended by hundreds of thousands of students. And these public institutions are the ones that educate most first-generation, low-income, Black and Latino students.

Another point is often overlooked in debates about affirmative action at elite schools: While colleges have broadened admissions to bring in previously excluded groups, they’ve added a new way to restrict entry to some more popular pursuits. Most public colleges and universities now have secondary admissions processes for majors like business, education and engineering, requiring higher grade point averages and standardized test scores for entry. These secondary admissions policies can be barriers for students of color, undermining affirmative action’s promise of equal opportunity.

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A short history of community-centered affirmative action

In the 1960s, universities began adopting affirmative action policies to admit students of color who had been historically excluded from their institutions. These admissions offices focused on identifying high-achieving students who may not have had high standardized test scores but otherwise had stellar academic records.

But in cities throughout the United States, community activists demanded that public institutions take a different approach for Black, Latino, Asian American and Indigenous students who on paper would not have been considered ready for college but, with support, could succeed. They argued that systemic education inequalities had prevented young people from reaching their potential and that any failure to meet traditional criteria resulted from these systemic inequities, not from a lack of student potential.

This community-centered approach moved away from viewing affirmative action as a process for helping individual students, to a collective effort focused on creating college access opportunities for all underserved students at the public institutions. They also worked to build systems of financial and academic support, which included providing scholarships, summer academic readiness programs, academic advisement and tutoring to help students develop into scholars.

Many state colleges and universities were not enthusiastic about admitting such students. But the urban uprisings and rebellions of the mid- and late 1960s pushed them to respond.

Between 1966 and 1969, 14 states created college-access programs for students of color who otherwise would not have been admitted to their own state colleges and universities. Such programs included the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) in New Jersey, the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK) Program at the City University of New York, and the Talent Development Program at the University of Rhode Island. Some of these programs have, for decades, helped students of color who otherwise might not have been able to earn college degrees.

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Then schools added secondary admissions policies

Affirmative action policies have increased the numbers of students of color attending colleges and universities. But studies show that over time, business, education and engineering schools are becoming more segregated, graduating more White students and fewer students of color. Some argue that it’s because fewer students of color choose to go into these majors. But my research finds that students of color are being kept out by secondary admissions criteria, which include higher GPA requirements or higher standardized test scores, or both.

For my forthcoming book, I collected GPA requirements for business, education, engineering and nursing majors at every four-year public college and university in every state. As of 2019, my research finds, nearly 91 percent of all public colleges and universities had some GPA requirement to enter at least one of the selected majors. Over 78 percent had some GPA requirement of 2.75 or higher (on a 0 to 4.0 scale) to enter at least one of the selected majors. Nearly half had some GPA requirement of 3.0 or higher to enter at least one of the selected majors.

In other words, gaining admission to a public university does not mean that students can choose any major.

The Supreme Court may end affirmative action. Then what?

What does this have to do with affirmative action programs?

When I analyzed the data, controlling for various factors, I found that as the percentage of Black students at a university increased, that school become increasingly likely to add a higher GPA requirement for these majors. Increased Latino enrollment was also associated with increased GPA requirements, but not as strongly as Black student enrollment.

In other words, as communities successfully challenged barriers to admissions, many institutions started to restrict access to specific majors and professions. These barriers, which are often hidden from public view, undermine the intention of affirmative action and the promise of higher education altogether.

The Supreme Court will be making a consequential decision on affirmative action, and whatever the decision, colleges may promise that they are committed to educating historically disadvantaged students. But it remains to be seen whether that commitment extends beyond the admissions acceptance letter.

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Domingo Morel (@DomingoMorel) is an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University at Newark and author of the forthcoming book “Developing Scholars: Race, Politics, and the Pursuit of Higher Education” (Oxford University Press).